Turkey's President Erdogan suggests having Brexit-style referendum on Turkey's bid to join the EU

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has suggested Turkey could hold a referendum over whether to continue its accession process to join the European Union.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has suggested Turkey could hold a referendum over whether to continue its accession process to join the European Union.PHOTO: AFP

ANKARA (AFP) - Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has suggested Turkey could hold a referendum over whether to continue its long-stalled accession process to join the European Union.

Angrily lashing out at the bloc's treatment of Ankara, Mr Erdogan said Turkey could hold a referendum along the lines of the plebescite in Britain, where voters are deciding on Thursday (June 23) whether to stay in the European Union or leave.

His comments were the first time the Turkish strongman had raised the prospect of holding a referendum on Turkey's EU bid. He had previously repeatedly insisted that full membership of the European Union was Turkey's strategic aim.

"We can stand up and ask the people just like the British are doing," Mr Erdogan said late on Wednesday at a speech in Istanbul, quoted by the state-run Anadolu news agency.

"We would ask 'Do we continue the negotiations with the European Union or do we end it?' If the people say 'continue', then we would carry on," he said.

A landmark deal agreed in March between Turkey and the European Union was expected to calm tensions and give new momentum to the Turkish membership bid.

But the EU is insisting it cannot grant Turkey the key sweetener of visa-free travel to the Schengen area if it does not narrow the scope of its anti-terror laws, something Ankara has refused to do.

Mr Erdogan said while Turkey was hosting three million refugees from the Syria and Iraq conflicts, Europe had been rattled by the prospect of giving sanctuary to any migrants.

"You are not keeping your promise. This is your (Europe's) ugly face. When Erdogan exposes your ugly face you go crazy," he said.

"And that is why you are making efforts on 'how do we get rid of Erdogan'," he said, accusing Europe of sympathising with Kurdish militants battling the Turkish state.

Mr Erdogan said Turkey had been promised membership in 1963 but 53 years later nothing had happened. "Why are you stalling?" he asked.

Accusing the Christian-dominated EU of religious bias, he said: "Hey EU! You are just not going to agree to accept us because the big majority of our people are Muslims."

Revealing an incident that Mr Erdogan said he had kept private until now, he claimed a former French foreign minister had told him Turkey was trying "in vain" to join the European Union "because we are Muslims". He did not reveal the identity of the minister.

It was in 1963 that Ankara and Brussels for the first time inked an association agreement stating that Turkey would aim to be a member of the bloc.

After applying in 1987, Turkey began EU accession talks in 2005 but its membership bid has been held up by an array of problems.

Sources in Brussels said Wednesday EU members states will meet on June 30 to agree to open a new negotiating chapter with Turkey on finance and budget affairs. Since 2005, the EU has opened only 15 chapters out of the 35 required to join the bloc.

With the question of Turkey's possible membership a hot button issue in the British referendum, Ankara has been angered by comments from London suggesting that it has no realistic chance of joining the bloc in the medium term.

During the campaign, Prime Minister David Cameron said Turkish membership was not "remotely on the cards" and may not happen until the year 3,000.

Polls in Turkey have shown that now less than half of Turks support EU membership, falling from a clear majority in favour a decade ago.