BERLIN: Turkey aims to win easier access to the European Union for its citizens, President Tayyip Erdogan said in Berlin on Friday during a state visit that aims to repair relations between the two countries after a bitter dispute.
The government will move to meet the EU’s criteria for achieving visa liberalization, he said on the second day of the visit that also aims to improve ties with the European Union.
The country’s economic crisis has been aggravated by sanctions imposed by US President Donald Trump and the government hopes improved relations will bring in private investment from the economic superpower on its doorstep.
Germany, home to 3 million ethnic Turks and reliant on Turkey to help contain a migrant crisis beyond Europe’s borders, is also keen to repair ties, which have frayed since the Turkish crackdown after a failed coup in 2016. But there are concerns about Turkey’s human rights record and press freedom.
“We are planning to fulfil the remaining six criteria for visa liberalization as soon as possible,” Erdogan said. “Visa liberalization, updating the customs union and reviving accession talks will benefit both Turkey and the EU.”
Merkel, at the same news conference, said she had pushed for the release of German citizens among the tens of thousands of people arrested since the coup, blamed by Ankara on supporters of US-based cleric Fetullah Gulen. Gulen denies involvement.
Germany needed more evidence if it was to classify Gulen’s movement, described by Turkey as the Fetullah Gulen Terrorist Organization (FETO), as an illegal group like the Kurdish militant PKK.
“We take very seriously the evidence Turkey provided but we need more material if we are to classify it in the same way we have classified the PKK,” she said.
She said authorities were looking for suspected coup plotters that Turkey wanted extradited, but said she and Erdogan had differing views on topics including press freedom.
Newspaper Bild reported that Erdogan had been ready to call off the news conference if it was attended by Can Dundar, a journalist who fled into German exile after spying charges were brought against him. In the event, Dundar stayed away.
“I decided not to go because it was clear to me that Erdogan would use my presence as an excuse not to appear at the press conference and face critical questions from my German colleagues,” Dundar later told reporters.
Erdogan had earlier described the former editor of Cumhuriyet newspaper — which published a video purporting to show Turkey’s intelligence agency trucking weapons into Syria — as a “spy” who should be extradited to serve time.
Dundar rejected that allegation, saying that, in making it, Erdogan had “lied in the face of world opinion.” He warned that German companies would run a grave risk if they invested in Turkey, since “the rule of law is not guaranteed.”
Turkey’s highest court ruled in March that Dundar should have been sentenced to up to 20 years in prison on espionage charges.
The day was punctuated by protests, starting when a participant in the news conference wearing a T-shirt with the slogan “Freedom for Journalists” was bustled out when he began attempting to shout Erdogan down.
Much of central Berlin was in lock-down for the visit, reflecting nervousness at the divisiveness of a visitor who is hailed a hero by many German Turks and reviled as an autocrat by many others.
Protesters holding Turkish flags and posters of Erdogan’s political opponents lined some streets. Later, some 1,000 protesters gathered on the city’s central Potsdamer Platz to protest Erdogan’s presence.
“It is a scandal in the history of this country that it rolls out the red carpet for dictators,” Left party politician Hakan Tas told the crowd. “The day will come when the mass murderer of the Bosphorus will sit behind bars.”