Merkel, Schulz clash on policy in pre-election TV duel


Germany's Social Democrat (SPD) leader Martin Schulz told a television debate with Chancellor Angela Merkel that he would stop Turkey's bid to join the European Union if he was elected leader of Europe's most populous country.

Chancellor Angela Merkel and her centre-left rival Martin Schulz clashed over Germany's Turkey policy in a televised debate Sunday night, three weeks ahead of the September 24th general elections.

The Social Democrat Party (SPD) leader Schulz called for a tougher line on Turkey, and in a surprise move, suggested immediately stopping Ankara's EU membership talks, and freezing €4 billion ($4.68 billion) pre-accession funds.

"If I would become the Chancellor, I would stop Turkey's EU membership talks," he said, amid escalating tensions between Germany and Turkey.

Schulz had long advocated Turkey's EU membership, but signalled a policy charge in recent weeks, after recent polls revealed a considerable decline in support to his SPD.

The top chancellor candidates went into the debate on Sunday night, with polls showing Merkel's Christian Democratic bloc (CDU/CSU) was likely to gain 38 percent of votes in the September 24 elections, while the SPD was polled at 24 percent.

Despite Schulz's unexpected political manoeuvre on Sunday night, Chancellor Merkel maintained her cautious approach and defended her policy of engaging in dialogue with Turkey to overcome ongoing tensions.

"I do not have the intention to break off diplomatic relations with Turkey," she stressed.

Merkel also argued that stopping Turkey's EU membership talks might be a wrong message to Turkish citizens who continue supporting democratic reforms, and the country's EU membership perspective.

However, she backed recent economic measures which aimed at increasing political pressure on Ankara, and also spoke about the possibility of updating travel advice on Turkey.

Commenting on Schulz's call to end Turkey's EU membership talks, Merkel underlined that such a move needs the support of other EU member states.

She also recalled that so far the coalition government's Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel, a social democrat politician, did not support such calls.

But Merkel said, she would now talk to her colleagues and see if there was a common position on that.

Tensions between Berlin and Ankara further escalated last week, as German politicians sharply criticized arrests of two German citizens of Turkish-descent on Thursday in Turkey, on suspicion of supporting terrorist groups.

Since the July 2016 coup attempt in Turkey, more than a dozen German citizens were arrested on suspicion of providing support to illegal or terrorist groups.

While German politicians demanded their release, Turkish authorities repeatedly underlined that the country's judiciary was independent, and that any political influence on legal procedures was out of the question.

Ties between Ankara and Berlin have been strained since the foiled coup attempt, as Turkish leaders slammed Germany for turning a blind eye to outlawed groups and terrorist organizations, which are hostile to Turkey.

German politicians on the other hand voiced concerns over the rule of law and human rights issues amid widespread investigations by the Turkish authorities into the Fetullah Terrorist Organization (FETO), which orchestrated the defeated coup that left 250 people martyred and nearly 2,200 injured.

FETO has a large network in Germany, with dozens of private schools, businesses and media organizations.

Since the coup attempt, nearly 4,000 FETO suspects have come to Germany from Turkey and other countries, according to local media reports.

Despite repeated requests by Ankara to arrest leading FETO figures, the German authorities have turned down extradition requests and argued that Ankara should first provide legally sound evidence.

Apart from FETO, the terrorist PKK group is also active in the country, and carries out significant propaganda, recruitment and funding activities.

The group has nearly 14,000 followers among the Kurdish immigrant population in Germany, according to the BfV (Federal Republic of Germany) domestic intelligence agency.

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