BRUSSELS (REUTERS) - European Union foreign ministers on Monday criticised Turkey's crackdown on alleged supporters of a failed military coup in July but Austria's call to suspend Ankara's EU membership bid failed to garner enough backing.
As the 28 EU foreign ministers met in Brussels, President Tayyip Erdogan said he was ready to hold a referendum on whether to continue the membership talks and reiterated that he would restore the death penalty - a move sure to scupper the EU talks - if his parliament passed such a law.
Turkey has suspended, dismissed or detained at least 110,000 people, including soldiers, judges and teachers, since the coup. Critics of the president accuse him of using it as a pretext to crush dissent, a charge he denies. "I am not for the continuation of entry negotiations and I believe that this Turkey does not have a place in the European Union," said Austria's Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz.
Luxembourg and Belgium were also critical of Turkey, but the bloc's most powerful members, France and Germany, support continued engagement, arguing that ending the accession negotiations now would do more harm than good.
Boris Johnson, the foreign minister of Britain, which intends to leave the EU, also cautioned against over-reaction to events in Turkey, a large, strategically important, mainly Muslim country on the EU's southeastern flank. "We should not push Turkey into a corner, we should not overreact in a way that is against our collective interests," he said.
Despite its increased concerns over human rights and press freedoms in Turkey, the EU has often toned down its criticism of Erdogan and his government, whose cooperation it needs to keep low the number of refugees and migrants reaching Europe via Greece from Turkey.
More than 1.3 million people arrived in Europe last year, triggering bitter disputes between EU member states over how to handle them. The deal with Turkey, though much criticised by rights groups, has reduced the influx to a trickle.
An EU official said the bloc's leaders would review the situation in Turkey at a summit scheduled for Dec 15-16. "It would have to be a majority vote to stop the talks and it's clear there is no majority at this stage," the official added.
Some EU countries said the bloc would lose any residual influence it has over Turkey if it suspended talks, but also expressed concern over the possible restoration of the death penalty, previously scrapped by Ankara as part of its accession drive. "It is important to keep the membership negotiations ongoing since it is the only way to influence Turkey," Finland's Foreign Minister Timo Soini told reporters.
"(But) everybody understands that if it goes on like this, Turkey will not become a member of the EU. The death penalty is the absolute red line for the EU." Turkey has often threatened to walk away from the migration deal if the EU does not deliver on its side of the bargain by relaxing visa rules by the end of the year for its citizens visiting Europe.
Ankara has also accused the EU of failing to show sufficient solidarity with it over the failed coup, in which more than 240 people were killed. Erdogan blames a US-based Muslim preacher, Fethullah Gulen, and his supporters for the putsch.
Diplomats said Johnson spoke out during Monday's discussions for a transactional relationship with Turkey, which some took as meaning he thought human rights were of secondary importance.
However, a British diplomat said Johnson had wanted to discuss "how we can constructively influence Turkey" in its deliberations over the death penalty rather than alienate it further.