Austria threatens to block acceleration of Turkish EU talks

VIENNA (Reuters) - Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz has threatened to block the expansion of negotiations with Turkey on its accession to the European Union, which could scupper a landmark migration deal between Brussels and Ankara.

Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz leaves after a ceremony in the Hall of Remembrance at Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem May 16, 2016. REUTERS/Ammar Awad

The Turkish government’s crackdown on followers of a U.S.-based cleric whom it blames for last month’s failed coup has strained relations with the 28-nation bloc, which depends on Ankara to restrict the westward flow of migrants.

Talks on Turkish accession to the EU began in 2005, but only one out of 35 “chapters”, or policy areas where Turkey must adopt and implement EU rules, has been concluded.

“I have a seat and a vote in the (EU) foreign ministers’ council. There the question is whether new negotiation chapters will be opened with Turkey, and I am against it,” Kurz said in an interview with Austrian daily Kurier, threatening to block the unanimous agreement required by the council.

Turkey has so far lived up to its side of the deal with Brussels to stop illegal migration to Europe via its territory, in return for financial aid, the promise of visa-free travel to much of the bloc and accelerated talks on membership.

But visa-free access has been subject to delays due to a dispute over Turkish anti-terrorism legislation, which some in Europe see as too broad, and the post-coup crackdown. Kurz said Turkey had not met the conditions for progress to be made.

“The criteria for visa liberalization will not be fulfilled by Turkey. And the requirements for accession talks have not been met,” Kurz said.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said on Friday accession talks were “as good as deadlocked” but he rejected calls to halt them entirely saying the bloc needed to think more broadly about how to frame its ties with Ankara.

But on Sunday his colleague, German Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel, said he believed Turkey was unlikely to join the EU for decades.

“I don’t believe that Turkey in the foreseeable future - and I’m talking about the next 10, 20 years - has the chance to become an EU member,” Gabriel told broadcaster ARD in an interview due to be broadcast on Sunday evening.

Reporting by Francois Murphy; Additional reporting by Caroline Copley in Berlin; Editing by Alexandra Hudson and Raissa Kasolowsky