By Samia Nakhoul, Nick Tattersall and Orhan Coskun
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 Tayyip Erdogan told Reuters in a wide-ranging interview on Tuesday.
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 recognize 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 vandalized 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, criticizing 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 symbolizing a different faith … But EU member states don’t seem to realize this fact. They are finding it very difficult to absorb a Muslim country like Turkey,” he said.
BUFFER AGAINST SYRIA AND IRAQ
Europe, Erdogan said, had failed to appreciate Turkey’s role in stemming the flow of migrants from neighboring 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 favor of Assad, who is also backed by Turkey’s regional rival Iran.
Turkey is part of the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State in Syria and Iraq but its role has been complicated by U.S. 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.
(Additional reporting by Tuvan Gumrukcu and Tulay Karadeniz; Editing by Andrew Roche)