BRATISLAVA, Slovakia — European Union foreign ministers grappled Friday with how to handle strained relations with Turkey amid concerns over human rights that could threaten a key deal meant to keep refugees away from European shores.
The relationship with Turkey is only one of several items on the agenda for the two-day 28-nation meeting. The ministers are also set to discuss joint efforts to combat terrorism and plan to focus on developing the EU’s global strategy during their talks.
But arrival comments from participants clearly indicated that how to balance relations with Turkey was the main issue on their minds.
Turkey is pushing for visa-free travel for its citizens and is threatening to walk away from the migrant deal if its demands aren’t met. Yet Brussels says it will only allow visa-free travel if Ankara rolls back a crackdown targeting wide segments of society in the wake of the mid-July abortive coup against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The agreement commits Turkey to take back migrants from Syria and elsewhere attempting to enter the EU from Turkey illegally and has strongly reduced the migrant influx into the EU since it was fully implemented in March.
Ankara is also angry over calls by several EU government officials to suspend, or even end years-long talks on Turkey’s entry into the EU, again because of concerns about the state of human rights. Erdogan’s flirt with reintroducing the death penalty and a terrorist law that extends to journalists are some of the issues eliciting EU apprehension.
Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz reiterated his call for an end to EU ascension talks with Turkey as he arrived to the meeting, telling reporters that “we consider cleansing actions and attempts to silence those who think differently a wrong approach.”
Both Kurz and Austrian Chancellor Christian Kern have called for an end to EU entry talks. He also said Turkey had to meet demands for European human right standards if it hopes for EU visa liberation concessions and “for now, the conditions are not met.”
Foreign Minister Miroslav Lajcak of Slovakia, which holds the rotating EU presidency, said it was important to speak with a unified EU voice on Turkey.
Ankara is “an important partner, and we need to clarify among ourselves what we want from Turkey,” he said.
Contradicting Kurz, he said Slovakia favored continuing talks on Turkey’s EU membership, describing them as “the best leverage the EU could have” with Ankara.