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EU worries over Turkey crackdown as Erdogan mulls referendum

Associated Press Associated Press 14/11/2016 By LORNE COOK and SUZAN FRASER, Associated Press
Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses a group of farmers, in Ankara, Turkey, Monday, Nov. 14, 2016. Erdogan has suggested holding a referendum on the future of Turkey's European Union membership bid amid worsening ties with the union.(Murat Cetinmuhurdar, Presidential Press Service, Pool photo via AP) © The Associated Press Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses a group of farmers, in Ankara, Turkey, Monday, Nov. 14, 2016. Erdogan has suggested holding a referendum on the future of Turkey's European Union membership bid amid worsening ties with the union.(Murat Cetinmuhurdar, Presidential Press Service, Pool photo via AP)

BRUSSELS — European Union foreign ministers expressed fresh concern Monday about Turkey's crackdown on political opponents and the media, while President Recep Tayyip Erdogan suggested he might call a referendum next year on whether his country should join the bloc.

At talks in Brussels, the ministers struggled to forge a common stance that would balance their desperate need for Ankara's help to stop hundreds of thousands of refugees heading to Europe with deep concerns about rights abuses in Turkey in the wake of the thwarted military coup in July.

"We see constant news there confirming our worries," EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini told reporters after the meeting.

Earlier, Turkish media reported that police had detained a group of students who protested Erdogan's move to appoint a president to head Istanbul's prestigious Bogazici University.

A government decree last month abolished elections of university presidents, allowing Turkey's increasingly powerful head of state to appoint them directly.

Turkey and the EU have been locked in a war of words over Ankara's commitment to democracy and rule of law. EU officials say it's time for Turkey to say whether it really wants to join, but patience is running out in Turkey after more than a decade of troubled membership talks.

Addressing a group of farmers on Monday, Erdogan said: "Let's wait in patience until the end of the year and then go to the people."

He was responding to reports that the European Parliament's president has said that Turkey could face economic sanctions over the crackdown. Erdogan also accused the EU of breaking its promises and supporting outlawed Kurdish militants.

Mogherini said Turkey's membership talks were not on the agenda Monday. Despite the tensions, she said, it was important to keep open lines of communication between European capitals and Ankara.

Many EU nations are happy to keep the accession negotiations going, even though some — notably Germany, France and Cyprus — would prefer a special partnership with Turkey rather than full membership.

"We are very concerned about the way things are evolving today in Turkey. When you see the number of arrests of journalists, arrests of members of parliament... I think we really have to dare to thrash this out with the Turkish authorities," said Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Reynders.

But after years of foot-dragging by some countries, the EU has promised faster membership talks, visa-free travel for Turkish citizens and billions of euros in aid for Syrian refugees living in Turkey if Ankara stops migrants setting off for Greece and agrees to take back thousands of others.

In recent months, top Turkish officials have ratcheted up pressure on the EU by warning that the refugee deal will fall apart if Europe does not respect its promises.

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Fraser reported from Ankara.

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