Turkey risks losing more than €1bn in aid linked to its bid to join the EU, as member states prepare for a showdown over their deteriorating relationship with Ankara.
A summit of the union’s leaders this week is expected to stop short of formally freezing Turkey’s accession talks in a debate called by Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, amid splits over how tough a line to take.
While there is widespread anger among EU governments over Ankara’s political crackdown and jailing of EU citizens, some are wary of undermining co-operation on migration, security and Syria.
One EU diplomat predicted a “full and frank discussion” as several countries led by Germany pressed for a public display of the depth of concern in the union.
Another EU diplomat said: “Turkey is drifting away with regards to the domestic situation, human rights and the rule of law. It is a situation Europe has to respond to by looking at all aspects of EU-Turkey relations, including the accession process.”
More than €4bn of accession funds allocated by the EU to Turkey are likely to be a main focus of the debate, diplomats said. The €600m to €700m a year annual flows until 2020 could be cut by as much as three-quarters under a hardline scenario that would hit projects in areas such as infrastructure and agriculture. Softer options would involve a smaller cut, or a reallocation of funds away from the government and towards civil society groups.
The debate will underscore the scale of the falling-out between Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Ms Merkel, who said during the campaign for last month’s German election that Ankara should not be allowed to join the EU.
The EU talks also come amid an escalating dispute between Ankara and Washington, which have imposed tit-for-tat curbs on visas for each other’s citizens after a Turkish employee at the US consulate in Istanbul was arrested earlier this month.
Some European countries fear the consequences of a similar deepening conflict with Turkey, which is a Nato member and also plays a big role stopping migrants coming to Europe. Even Ankara’s strongest critics in the EU acknowledge there is probably no majority within the union to formally freeze or end accession talks with Turkey, which have in any case effectively stalled.
“The question this week is going to be about whether to just recognise concerns or whether to have a harder edge,” said another EU diplomat. “I don't think there is a consensus about what to do about it."
Supporters of the financial cut plan see it as attractive because it could also free up money to fund the 2016 migration deal under which Turkey takes back migrants who cross to the Greek islands. Under this agreement, another €3bn is due to be paid out before the end of 2018 if Ankara fulfils its commitments.
An accession funding raid would likely be portrayed domestically by the Turkish government as a hostile act by the EU. But Ankara would also be expected to shrug it off as a symbolic measure that would have little impact on the economy. EU diplomats expect next week to foreshadow a bigger battle over Turkey once the European Commission publishes a report due in April on Ankara’s progress towards accession.
Get alerts on Turkey when a new story is published