BERLIN • German Chancellor Angela Merkel has said she would seek an end to Turkey's membership talks with the European Union, in an apparent shift of her position during a televised debate weeks before a German election.
"The fact is clear that Turkey should not become a member of the EU," Dr Merkel said in the debate on Sunday with her Social Democrat challenger Martin Schulz.
The comments are likely to increase already strained ties between the two Nato allies that have worsened since Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan's crackdown on opponents in the aftermath of a failed coup attempt in July last year.
Dr Merkel's comments came only after Mr Schulz appeared to surprise her by vowing to push for an end to the negotiations if he was elected chancellor in the Sept 24 federal election.
"If I become German chancellor, if the people of this country give me a mandate, then I will propose to the European Council that we end the membership talks with Turkey," Mr Schulz said.
"Whether we can win over all the countries for this, I don't know. But I will fight for this."
Dr Merkel initially cautioned against such a move, saying it would be irresponsible to endanger ties with Turkey at a time when German citizens are imprisoned there.
Twelve Germans are in Turkish detention on political charges, four of them holding dual citizenship.
"I do not intend to break off diplomatic relations with Turkey just because we're in an election campaign and want to show each other who is tougher," she said.
But after the debate moderators had moved on and asked the two candidates a question about US President Donald Trump, Dr Merkel returned to the Turkey issue, suddenly throwing her weight behind an end to the membership talks. "I'll speak to my (EU) colleagues to see if we can reach a joint position on this so that we can end these accession talks," she said.
Mr Erdogan responded yesterday by accusing German politicians of indulging in populism, but added that he hoped strained relations would improve.
Mr Erdogan's spokesman, Mr Ibrahim Kalin, tweeted: "We hope that the problematic atmosphere that made Turkish-German relations the victim of this narrow political horizon will end."
Dr Merkel's conservative party, the Christian Democratic Union, has long opposed Turkish membership in the EU.
But the green light for membership talks was given months before Dr Merkel became chancellor in 2005 and she has always said that she will respect that decision, referring to the negotiations as "open ended". However, accession talks have ground to a virtual halt and EU leaders have stepped up their criticism of Mr Erdogan.