Germany on Friday urged fellow EU nations not to end membership talks with Turkey despite deep misgivings over its rights record because the country is key to European interests.
Austria has led calls for the negotiations to be ditched, saying President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has violated the basic EU rule of law and democratic norms candidate countries must put in place.
Other member states have been reluctant to call time on a key NATO ally seen as vital to Europe’s security.
German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel said his government was “strictly against breaking off the accession talks…. It would be the completely wrong reaction.”
“In NATO, we did not even exclude Turkey even during the times of military dictatorship (there),” Gabriel said as he arrived for an EU foreign ministers meeting in Valletta.
The Turkish foreign minister is due to join them for a session on relations with EU candidate countries.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said he would be seeking clarifications from Mevlut Cavusoglu in the hope of establishing a way forward.
However, should Erdogan introduce the death penalty — a red line for many member states — that would immediately end all prospect of Turkey joining the EU, he said.
In March last year, the European Union signed an accord with Turkey to speed up the accession talks, along with visa liberalization and billions in aid in return for Ankara halting a flood of migrants, mostly from Syria and Iraq, coming to Europe.
Erdogan and top Turkish officials have repeatedly threatened to rip up the deal because of the lack of progress in the membership talks.
The president also warned that he would review relations with the EU as a whole after winning a referendum this month that dramatically increased his powers.
Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz repeated his call for the accession talks to be halted and told his EU peers to make their minds up.
“I consider it completely wrong if we hold up this fiction of an accession (to the EU) as Turkey moves away even further from Europe every year,” Kurz said.
“We need finally a clear decision,” he said.
EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini refused to be drawn, saying Friday’s meeting would be a good opportunity for member states to review the situation after the referendum in Turkey.
“I think we need a serious, in-depth, frank and serene discussion,” she said.