Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz | Joe Klamar/AFP via Getty Images

Austria to the EU: We need to talk about Turkey

Foreign minister says more countries are in agreement with his hardline stance on Turkish EU membership.


12/12/16, 8:56 PM CET

Updated 12/13/16, 3:10 PM CET

Austria has spent months calling for a halt to Turkey’s European Union membership talks — now it wants EU leaders to sit up and take notice.

“When hundreds of thousands are arrested, when dissenters and opposition politicians are imprisoned … this is something that does not correspond to the spirit and fundamental values of the EU,” Sebastian Kurz, Austria’s foreign minister, told POLITICO Monday.

Kurz said he would use a meeting of EU foreign and Europe ministers on Tuesday to try to make his case again, and hoped to block adoption of the meeting’s conclusions on Turkey’s membership bid before they are passed on to leaders when they meet in Brussels Thursday. He said blocking the conclusions “is the leverage I have as a foreign minister.”

“I would expect that there will be a line [on the state of play of Turkish accession] in the conclusions of the meeting of the heads of state and government,” Kurz said. “I believe that it’s wrong to take the next step and pretend that the negotiations on accession will continue as if nothing had happened.”

“We’ve been negotiating for weeks in order to change the conclusions, which hasn’t happened so far. Therefore we can’t agree to them at this point. But from our point of view, the minimum is that it is clearly noted that due to the current developments in Turkey, negotiations will be frozen,” he said.

Kurz is from the center-right ÖVP party, which is the junior partner in Austria’s grand coalition with the Social Democrats. Leaders of both parties have repeatedly called to end the talks with Turkey, a view which largely reflects public opinion in Austria.

Relations between the EU and Turkey have become badly frayed as the government in Ankara cracked down on opposition figures following a failed military coup in July. In November, members of the European Parliament sharply criticized President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan for trampling democratic freedoms in the months since the coup, and for raising the prospect of restoring the death penalty.

MEPs later voted to suspend Turkey’s EU accession talks. The vote was non-binding, but it angered Erdoğan who threatened to open the floodgates of migrants into Europe.

That’s a problem for the EU, which in March signed a deal with Ankara under which Turkey agreed to stop the flow of migrants crossing into Europe in exchange for an acceleration of accession talks and visa liberalization for its citizens.

Turkey’s chief negotiator, Ömer Çelik, told reporters in Brussels last month that European nations failed to properly recognize the threat Turkey faced during the coup attempt. He also said they had unfairly criticized Turkey for the crackdown that followed, while not adequately acknowledging the country’s efforts to fight terrorism and to shelter millions of refugees.

Kurz responded to the complaints from Ankara about a lack of understanding for a country that has experienced more than half a dozen terror attacks this year by saying he “fully condemned” the failed coup and “terrorism such as the atrocious bombings in Istanbul last Saturday.”

But he added: “The understanding for Turkey would increase if they made some steps towards us. I don’t see that happening at the moment.”

Kurz said he saw support for Austria’s hardline position growing, but only in private.

“There often is, unfortunately, a certain gap between official opinion and what people indeed support, or between public statements and what is then decided behind closed doors.

“I can accept it as long as the gap does not become too huge. If the situation becomes too contradictory, then it makes no sense anymore for any of the parties involved.”

Not everybody agrees with the Austrian position. “I don’t consider it responsible foreign policy to just say ‘we put an end to the accession talks,’ without saying clearly what the outcome would be,” German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier told reporters in Brussels.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker told German paper Welt am Sonntag that he also disagreed with Vienna’s stance on Turkey. “We should make an effort so Turkey gets closer to the European Union again, rather than to veer away in giant steps,” he said, adding that he wanted to keep the conversation going.

Kurz responded by saying, “I am in favor of  dialogue, even of working together on specific issues where cooperation makes sense.

But “there is a big difference between keeping up the dialogue on issues of common interest and pretending that a country will eventually be part of the European Union.”

Florian Eder