LUXEMBOURG (AP) — Germany has blocked the next step in the European Union's membership talks with Turkey over Ankara's crackdown on anti-government protests, a diplomat from an EU nation said Thursday.
Berlin blocked the decision to open a new chapter in the long-running accession talks because "there are still open questions," said the diplomat. The decision comes as a blow to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Turkish government, which faces increasing international scrutiny over its crackdown on several weeks of protests in Istanbul and other cities.
Pushing ahead with the EU accession talks as scheduled next week would have required unanimous approval at a meeting of top diplomats representing the EU's 27 member nations in Brussels on Thursday. But Germany and another nation expressed reservations and blocked the move, the diplomat said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the closed-door meeting publicly. The diplomat declined to name the second nation.
Human rights groups have said that the protests in Turkey have left more than 5,000 people injured and more than 3,000 were detained, then released. The anti-government demonstrations were sparked by a police crackdown on environmental activists in Istanbul on May 31, but also criticized what some regard as Erdogan's authoritarian style of leadership.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel last week said she was "appalled" to see the Turkish security forces' "overly harsh" crackdown on the protests. NATO-member Turkey began EU accession negotiations in 2005, but has made little progress because of a dispute with Cyprus, an EU member, and opposition among some in Europe to admitting a populous Muslim nation into the bloc.
The session of EU talks to open next week was to focus on regional policies, not Turkey's protests. But some officials expressed concern that such talks could appear to endorse the crackdown on the demonstrations.
"I regret that the Turkish government did not react with dialogue and de-escalation to the protests but with an aggravation in rhetoric and actions," German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said in an interview published late week.
"It is therefore all the more urgent that we start a dialogue with Turkey as soon as possible on the question of fundamental rights, the rule of law and basic freedoms," he told daily Nuernberger Nachrichten in remarks confirmed by his party office.
The European Parliament last week sharply criticized what it called disproportionate force used by police against demonstrators, and lawmakers scrapped a visit to Turkey planned this week. Erdogan reacted angrily to the EU parliament's criticism, but officials from his Islamic-rooted Justice and Development party said Wednesday that Turkey still wants to join the bloc.
Germany itself remains a potential obstacle to Turkish EU membership. Merkel and her conservative party have long advocated a vaguely defined "privileged partnership" instead of full membership, though Westerwelle's Free Democrats — her junior coalition partners— are less skeptical.
"I think precisely now it is important to start negotiating with Turkey about exactly these issues — from freedom of the press to freedom to protest," he said.
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