BRUSSELS (Reuters) - EU leaders will try to reset relations with Turkey at a summit this year with President Tayyip Erdogan, the EU’s official in charge of enlargement said, barely a week after Brussels sharply criticized Ankara’s human rights record.
Part of a renewed drive to build “a ring of friends” on the EU’s borders, European Commissioner Johannes Hahn said the EU-Turkey summit due to take place by the end of this year was also likely to seal an accord to curb migration flows into Europe.
“There is a new momentum in the EU-Turkey relationship,” Hahn told Reuters in an interview on Wednesday, saying he would also propose opening new talks on Ankara’s stalled EU accession process by the end of the year.
“It is about a fresh start in our relationship with Turkey in a very comprehensive manner and I hope this can be confirmed in this summit,” he said.
Facing its biggest refugee crisis in decades, the European Union has proposed the summit with Erdogan to satisfy a demand of the Turkish leader for higher-level EU contacts.
After a decade of largely fruitless accession talks with Turkey, EU countries now recognize they need the large, strategically important country that bridges Europe and the Middle East to help tackle the migrant crisis despite concerns over what they see as Erdogan’s growing authoritarianism.
The EU has offered Turkey 3 billion euros ($3.2 billion) in financial aid to keep some 2.2 million Syrian refugees on its soil in return for an acceleration of the EU accession talks and speeded-up visa liberalization for Turks visiting Europe.
“Such a summit is a good opportunity to announce a deal. I still expect this before Christmas,” said Hahn, adding that a Turkish request for setting up a “safe zone” inside northern Syria was no longer part of the talks.
The upbeat tone contrasted with the EU’s recent demands that Ankara lift restrictions on media freedom and stop meddling in the judiciary. In its annual report on Turkey, the Commission also called for a relaunch of peace talks with Kurdish militants in the southeast, where violence has surged.
But Hahn said there was no contradiction in the dual approach. Turkey, he said, was an EU candidate country that had to meet EU standards if it wanted to join the bloc and the best way to do that was through negotiations and by meeting goals.
Hahn said he would propose by the end of the year to EU governments that Turkey start negotiations with the bloc on applying EU rules regarding economic and monetary policy.
However, opening talks on more policy areas or ‘chapters’ depends on the situation in EU member Cyprus and the latest United Nations-led talks to reunite the island, split between Greek and Turkish Cypriots since 1974.
Hahn, an Austrian center-right politician, is also tasked with revamping the EU’s neighborhood policy - the bloc’s hope of building “a ring of friends” from the Caucasus to the Sahara - that is widely seen to have flopped.
Former Swedish prime minister Carl Bildt has described that “ring of friends” as now more akin to “a ring of fire” because of the EU’s failure to stabilize the countries on its borders.
Hahn signaled a more pragmatic approach in place of past lectures to the 16 countries concerned about democracy. “We have to follow our interests,” Hahn said.
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Editing by Gareth Jones