FILE PHOTO: Johannes Hahn addresses a news conference in Brussels
By Robin Emmott
VALLETTA (Reuters) - Turkey under President Tayyip Erdogan has turned its back on joining the European Union, at least for now, the bloc's top official dealing with Ankara said, offering economic cooperation instead if both sides can restore friendly ties.
After years of stalemate on Turkey's bid to join the world's biggest trading bloc, EU governments say the process is dead, citing Erdogan's crackdown on dissidents, his 'Nazi' jibes at Germany and a referendum giving him sweeping new powers that a rights group says lack checks and balances.
"Everybody's clear that, currently at least, Turkey is moving away from a European perspective," European Commissioner Johannes Hahn, who oversees EU membership bids, told Reuters.
"The focus of our relationship has to be something else," he said in an interview after EU foreign ministers met in Malta and where France and Germany led efforts to consider a new deal with Ankara based on trade and security ties.
"We have to see what could be done in the future, to see if we can restart some kind of cooperation," Hahn said on Saturday, saying that he had not had meetings on the economy with NATO-member Turkey since January last year, normally a fixture of accession talks.
The EU process is not formally frozen, but EU lawmakers called last week for a formal halt to talks, with some saying Turkey no longer met the democratic criteria to be considered a candidate, let alone a full member, for the EU.
Erdogan told Reuters in an interview last week that Turkey would not wait at Europe's door forever and would walk away from accession talks if what he said was rising Islamophobia and hostility from some member states persist.
Launched in 2005 after decades of seeking the formal start of an EU membership bid, negotiations dovetailed with Erdogan's first economic reforms in power as prime minister from 2003.
EU officials say Turkish reforms to enter the EU brought stability and attracted foreign investment, making Turkey an important emerging economy with high-speed trains crossing the strategically-located country bridging Europe and Asia.
That economic success remains part of Erdogan's popularity with the pious Turkish poor, who saw living standards rise, although Hahn noted the worsening state of Turkey's economy now.
The European Union is Turkey's biggest foreign investor and biggest trading partner, while Turkey shares a border with Iraq, Syria and with Russia in the Black Sea.
WHO'S TO BLAME?
Hahn said he would present a report by early next year to EU governments to clarify Turkey's status. The lack of urgency shows the reluctance of EU states to upset Ankara, given that they rely on Turkey to keep migrants from coming to Europe, diplomats said.
But Hahn said that limits on with press freedoms, mass jailing and shrinking civil rights made it almost impossible at the present time for Turkey to meet EU joining criteria.
Hahn said EU rules "were not negotiable" and the bloc would not "decouple the human rights situation" from discussions.
"There is no version of Turkish democracy. There is only democracy. Turkish people have the same rights to live in freedom as Europeans do," said Hahn, whose delegation in Turkey has visited dissidents in prison.
A slim majority of 51.4 percent of Turkish voters voted in April to grant the president sweeping new powers, the biggest overhaul of the country's politics since the founding of the modern republic, amid opposition accusations of vote fraud.
Asked if the European Union was partly responsible for Turkey's turn towards a more centralised system, Hahn said the drive to change had come from inside the country.
"Nobody can claim to be blameless, but it is always the sovereign decision of a country (to decide policy) ... If you have a certain vision in mind, it is difficult to intervene in a meaningful way," Hahn said.
"All these reform efforts are not done for the European Union but for the sake of (Turkish) citizens," Hahn said, referring to the process that helped transform former communist countries in central and eastern Europe into thriving market democracies as they sought to join the European Union.
"This is not about serving the Europeans," he said.
(Reporting by Robin Emmott; Editing by Andrew Heavens)