EU looks set to boost strained ties with Turkey

Turkey's President and leader of ruling Justice and Development Party Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks to village administrators in Ankara, Turkey, Thursday, Jan. 11, 2018. (Yasin Bulbul/Pool Photo via AP)

SOFIA, Bulgaria — The European Union looks set to make an opening to help improve badly damaged relations with Turkey in the near future, boosted by recent talks between Turkish and French and German leaders and officials.

After more than a year of insults and a diplomatic standoff between EU member nations and Turkey, Bulgarian Foreign Minister Ekaterina Zaharieva told a small group of reporters Thursday that the EU would be working hard to improve ties while her country holds the EU presidency over the next six months.

Zaharieva said the European Commission and Council of member states have already discussed the possibility of a high-level meeting with Turkey during the Bulgarian presidency to reinvigorate relations.

She couldn't pin down a date yet, but when pressed whether it would happen during her presidency, she said "We didn't schedule the date but I think 'why not, why not.'"

Last week brought the first major breakthrough when French President Emmanuel Macron hosted Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and suggested that the EU develop a special partnership with Turkey since EU membership negotiations have been in a rut for decades.

Zaharieva, who will preside over all meetings of EU foreign ministers until the summer, backed Macron and said it was "more realistic" for now to target a special partnership than full-blown EU membership. When asked if she would back it if an EU consensus was within reach, she said "yes, yes."

Highlighting the difficult relationship between the huge Muslim country and the largely Christian club has been the inability of both sides to get close to a membership deal for Turkey first envisaged over half a century ago.

Ties between Turkey and Europe worsened last year amid mass arrests and firings carried out by Erdogan's government following a July 2016 coup attempt. Relations deteriorated further after authorities in several countries prevented Turkish ministers from holding political rallies to court expatriates' votes in a referendum to expand the president's powers.

Erdogan unleashed a series of insults at NATO allies, accusing European officials of racism, harboring terrorists and behaving like Nazis.

That tone has changed in the new year.

Bulgaria, which shares a border with Turkey, realizes the strategic importance of its neighbor.

Zaharieva pointed out Turkey's important role as a NATO member, a military alliance to which most EU nations belong. She also said that Turkey remains a key partner in managing the flow of migrants from the Middle East. And she highlighted the economic clout of Ankara.

She insisted though that any new dialogue should happen "without closing eyes for the problems," among which she listed media freedom and human rights issues.

Since the failed coup in July 2016, about 50,000 people have been arrested and 110,000 others removed from public sector jobs in Turkey. Many have protested they are innocent.

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