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Erdogan says Turkey is ready to walk away from the EU

European Parliament's Turkey rapporteur calls for suspension of EU membership talks over implementation of new presidential referendum
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan attends an interview with Reuters at the Presidential Palace in Ankara (Reuters)

Turkey will not wait at Europe's door forever and is ready to walk away from EU accession talks if rising Islamophobia and hostility from some member states persist, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told Reuters in a wide-ranging interview on Tuesday.

His comments come as a leading member of the EU parliament responsible for dealings with Ankara on Wednesday called for the EU to formally suspend Turkey's long-stalled talks on membership if it adopts constitutional changes backed at a referendum last week.

Speaking at the presidential palace less than two weeks after winning sweeping new powers in a referendum, a relaxed Erdogan said a decision by a leading European human rights body to put Turkey back on a watch list was "entirely political" and that Ankara did not recognise the move.

The Strasbourg-based Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe said it put Turkey back on review over its crackdown on dissent since last year's coup attempt, rights violations, and concerns about Erdogan's increased grip on power.

Turkey's relations with the EU soured further ahead of the referendum, when he accused Germany and the Netherlands of acting like Nazis by banning rallies by his supporters.

"In Europe, things have become very serious in terms of the extent of Islamophobia. The EU is closing its doors on Turkey and Turkey isn't closing its doors on anybody," Erdogan said, showing photos of vandalised mosques and supporters of the outlawed Kurdish militants rallying against him in Europe.

"If they're not acting sincerely we have to find a way out. Why should we wait any longer? We're talking about 54 years," he said, referring to the 1963 Ankara Agreement which acknowledged the long-term goal of Turkish membership of a united Europe.

If necessary, he said, Turkey could hold a vote similar to Britain's on EU membership. He said Brexit had given Britain "peace of mind" and that it was "walking towards a new future".

It is a critical week for Turkish-EU relations. EU lawmakers will debate ties on Wednesday, while the bloc's foreign ministers will discuss the issue on Friday.

Erdogan said he would be closely watching.

"I'm very curious as to how the EU is going to act," he said, criticising EU states that have called for an end to accession talks.

Turkey, he said, was still committed to negotiations.

"There is not a single thing that we are not ready to do, the minute they ask for it. Whatever they wish, we do. But still they are keeping us at the door," he said.

Erdogan pointed to the French presidential election, in which far-right leader Marine Le Pen has threatened to take France out of the European Union, and said the bloc was "on the verge of dissolution, of breaking up".

"One or two countries cannot keep the EU alive. You need a country like Turkey, a different country symbolising a different faith ... But EU member states don't seem to realise this fact. They are finding it very difficult to absorb a Muslim country like Turkey," he said.

Suspend talks over presidency

Dutch MEP Kati Piri said on Wednesday ahead of a plenary debate on Turkey's EU membership that if President Tayyip Erdogan implemented his new charter, giving him even more powers, Turkey would close the door on membership.

Piri, a Dutch centre-left politician, said, "As Turkey with such a constitution cannot become a member of the EU, it also doesn't make sense to continue the discussion on integration with the current government,"

"The EU should officially suspend the accession talks if the constitutional changes are implemented unchanged," she told reporters, after the legislature last year passed a non-binding resolution calling for such a move.

Piri said any suspension should only come if and when the "authoritarian constitution" is enacted, which would happen after Turkey holds the next election, now due in late 2019.

She said Erdogan could bring them forward to swiftly assume more powers, though the Turkish leader said that was not on the agenda now.

Piri stressed, however, the process should be suspended rather than ended altogether: "I don't want to take that perspective away from the Turkish population."

"Turkey should remain a candidate country but we're negotiating with the government. It's become clear over the last two years that this government doesn't want to meet criteria."

She said she expected the EU's foreign ministers this Friday would ask the bloc's executive for a formal assessment of where Turkey stands on fulfilling these. Based on that, EU leaders could make further decisions when they next meet in June.

One tangible effect of suspending the process would be freezing the annual payments of some 600 million euros ($650 million) of EU pre-accession funds to Turkey.

Piri said Brussels could instead step up talks on enhancing the customs union which Turkey already has with the EU, a process she said could take the next two to three years.

"Clear political benchmarks" on the rule of law and human rights should be part of the process, she said, hoping it would give Europeans leverage to persuade Turkey to reverse policies which the bloc says are undermining democracy there.

Piri said, however, that while the process could be launched, it cannot be finalised without a deal in separate talks on reuniting Cyprus, an island long split between an EU state backed by Greece, and their rivals supported by Ankara.

Turkey's main opposition party, the CHP, announced on Wednesday it would apply to the European Court of Human Rights in the near future with regards to the contested 16 April referendum.

Buffer against Syria and Iraq

Europe, Erdogan said, had failed to appreciate Turkey's role in stemming the flow of migrants from neighbouring Syria and Iraq across it borders, and said the burden had fallen on Turkey and other countries in the region including Lebanon and Jordan.

He insisted there could be no solution to Syria's conflict while President Bashar al-Assad remains in power, and said Russian President Vladimir Putin had told him he was not personally committed to the Syrian leader.

"Assad is not the address for a prospective solution in Syria," Erdogan said, voicing frustration at international failure to compel the Syrian leader to leave.

"He has attacked his people with tanks, with cannons, with barrel bombs, with chemical weapons, with fighter jets. Do you think he could be the vehicle for a solution?"

The Turkish leader hinted at a softening of Russia's support for the Syrian president. Putin, he said, had told him: 'Erdogan, don't get me wrong. I'm not an advocate for Assad, I'm not his lawyer'."

Syria's war, pitting rebels mostly from its Sunni majority against a minority rule rooted in Assad's Alawite community, has killed 400,000 people, created millions of refugees, drawn in regional and global powers and allowed Islamic State to seize swathes of territory.

Russia's dramatic military intervention in 2015, after four years of inconclusive fighting, tilted the balance of power in favour of Assad, who is also backed by Turkey's regional rival Iran.

Turkey is part of the US-led coalition against Islamic State in Syria and Iraq but its role has been complicated by US support for the Syrian Kurdish YPG, viewed by Turkey as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has waged a three-decade insurgency in Turkey's southeast.

Turkish warplanes bombed Kurdish fighters in northern Iraq's Sinjar province and in northeast Syria on Tuesday, in a widening campaign against groups linked to the PKK.

Turkey will not let Sinjar become a PKK base and will continue military operations there and in northern Syria "until the last terrorist is eliminated", Erdogan said.