BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The senior European lawmaker for foreign affairs said on Tuesday the European Union might have “underestimated” the gravity of Turkey’s failed coup and must pursue dialogue with Ankara to preserve an agreement on halting the flow of migrants to Europe.
Elmar Brok, the European Parliament’s foreign affairs chair and a member of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s party, was briefing fellow lawmakers on his visit to Turkey last week, which came after the summer saw a souring of relations between the EU and Ankara following the failed coup in July.
The EU condemned the coup, but it has also criticized the ensuing crackdown by Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan. Tens of thousands have been arrested or sacked in Turkey for their alleged support for Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, who the Turkish government accuses of masterminding the coup.
Turkey in turn has accused the EU of indifference to the coup and said it might abandon an agreement with the EU to curtail the flow of migrants from the Middle East and Africa through Turkey into Europe. It has also demanded that Gulen, who lives in the United States, be extradited to Turkey.
In addition, Ankara has repaired its relationship with Russia, complicating its relations with Washington and the EU. In one sign of the growing tension, Turkish troops have fired on U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters in Syria.
Brok pointed out that during the failed coup, “rockets have actually hit the (Turkish) parliament ... you have to think of how you’d feel in that situation in the European Parliament. Imagine that the French National Assembly or that Westminster were hit by their own army.”
“After my visit, I take a different view on some of the Gulen-related issues,” Brok said. “The movement has infiltrated the state, they have acted as a ‘brotherhood’. There has been a misappraisal of the Gulen movement on our side.”
Brok said the EU must keep the migration deal with Turkey on track after Ankara threatened to walk away from it should the bloc fail to ease travel rules for Turks in October.
”I certainly did not get the impression that the Turks were trying to blackmail Europe ... My impression was that Turkey intends to stand by the refugee agreement,“ Brok said. ”I think we should step back in rhetoric.
“However much Turkey merits our criticisms ... from our geo-strategic point of view, it’s more important for Turkey to be on our side than in some else’s camp.”
Brok’s comments come amid a string of senior EU visits to Turkey as Brussels, back from summer holidays, gears up for more negotiations. The European Commission, the EU executive, will also report in September on the implementation of the migration deal.
Agreed in March, the deal has helped cut a mass influx of migrants and refugees to Europe. In exchange for preventing them from setting sail for Europe, Ankara won promises of 6 billion euros ($6.69 billion) in EU money for Syrian refugees living in Turkey, revival of Turkey’s EU membership talks and speedy visa liberalization.
But visa talks stalled before the summer break as Turkey refused to reform its anti-terror laws, which the EU says are applied too broadly to stifle dissent. Ankara says they are key to fighting Islamic State and Kurdish militants.
“We have to negotiate ... to adopt a constructive approach in the negotiations,” Brok said. He stressed, however, that Turkey must meet all 72 technical requirements to win more relaxed travel rules with the EU.
While all members of the committee seemed to agree that Turkey is nowhere near joining the EU, some lawmakers disagreed with Brok’s pragmatism.
Some stressed that Erdogan’s rapprochement with Russia’s Vladimir Putin proved Ankara was not attached to European values.
“We are against the coup, but we are also against the counter-coup, with what it implies for the abandonment of the rule of law,” said Ana Gomes, a leftist lawmaker from Portugal.
“We cannot just sit by, close our eyes to the fact that there is a power grab by President Erdogan ... We can’t just sell off our soul.”
($1 = 0.8965 euros)
Reporting by Gabriela Baczynska, editing by Larry King