The European Union's top two officials were in the Turkish capital Ankara on April 6 to pay a rare visit to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan aimed at testing his avowed commitment to improve uneasy ties.
The visit by European Council President Charles Michel and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen follows an EU summit last month at which the bloc said work could begin on deeper trade ties and on providing more money for refugees in Turkey.
After meeting with Erdoğan, Michel and Von der Leyen held a press meeting during which they urged Turkey to respect human rights and comply with the rulings of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).
Von der Leyen said that respect for fundamental rights and rule of law are crucial for the EU.
Asked by a journalist if "Turkey's behavior in the Mediterranean and  migration deal have priority over human rights issues" for the EU, Von der Leyen said: "Human rights issues are non-negotiable. So they have an absolute priority without any question. We were very clear on that [during the meeting with Erdoğan]."
"We have been for example discussing that the ECHR is clear on [Osman] Kavala and [Selahattin] Demirtaş. As a founding member of the European Council, it is important that Turkey respects rulings of the ECHR," Von der Leyen told reporters.
The ECHR has ruled for the immediate release of Kavala, a philanthropist jailed more than three years without conviction, and Demirtaş, former leader of Turkey's pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) who has been jailed more than four years.
Von der Leyen also said that she was "deeply worried" about Turkey's decision last month to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention, which aims to protect women from violence, and urged the Turkish government to reverse its decision.
Good first meeting with President @RTErdogan. Turkey has shown interest in re-engaging with the EU in a constructive way.— Ursula von der Leyen (@vonderleyen) April 6, 2021
We are ready to work on a new momentum in our relationship ahead of the June #EUCO. https://t.co/OKK1gdo3TC
Von der Leyen further said Ankara's adherence to a 2016 migrant agreement with the bloc would be a "major show of goodwill."
"The Commission will soon make a proposal that reflects ... principles" including better opportunities for refugees and a Turkish commitment to prevent irregular departures, she said. "I am very much committed to ensuring the continuity of European funding."
The European Commission will soon make a proposal to Turkey to ensure the flow of funding for refugees, she said, adding that Europe wants "much better relations" with Ankara but that it is "still early."
Turkey hosts some 4 million refugees, mostly Syrian, and has repeatedly accused the EU of not honoring promises under a 2016 deal under which it was to curb migrant flows to Europe in exchange for financial aid.
German opposition MPs slam EU chiefs over their Turkey visit
Meanwhile, German opposition lawmakers have criticized Michel and Von der Leyen for paying a visit to Erdoğan, as they voiced concern over the ongoing deterioration of the rule of law and democracy in Turkey, Deutsche Welle's Turkish service reported on April 6.
“Erdogan wants to close the opposition. He gets out of the Istanbul Convention and brings hundreds of thousands of innocent people before the law. Von der Leyen and Michel on the other hand are meeting Erdoğan to offer gifts. This means the self-abasement of Brussels and it making a mockery of all democrats in Turkey,” Green party lawmaker Cem Özdemir wrote on Twitter.
#Erdogan will die Opposition ausschalten. Steigt aus der #IstanbulKonvention aus. Bringt Hunderttausende Unschuldige vor Gericht.— Cem Özdemir (@cem_oezdemir) April 6, 2021
Von der Leyen & Michel treffen #Erdogan heute, um Geschenke zu machen. Das ist Brüsseler Selbstverzwergung & Hohn für alle Demokrat*innen der #Türkei!
Alexander Graf Lambsdorff, deputy parliamentary leader of Germany's liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP), said that the EU chiefs' visit was sending “a wrong signal.”
“It is not the right time to award the Turkish president's politics through powerful PR photos. Turkey has only recently withdrawn from the Istanbul Convention protecting women. The functioning of the opposition and journalism are being prevented in a very heavy way and the unbiasedness of justice has been de facto abolished,” Lambsdorff said, calling on the EU to put an end to the accessions talks with Turkey.
Manfred Weber, an MEP from Bavaria's Christian Social Union, has said that it is “too early” to start negotiations with Turkey to expand the scope of the customs union. “The Turkish administration has to first take some steps,” Weber said.
Turkey is an EU candidate country, and last month the EU also opened the door to begin modernizing a customs union to allow unhindered bilateral flows of goods and services.
Erdoğan has downplayed EU membership in recent years as the bloc has ramped up criticism of Ankara's foreign policy and rights record, and dangled the threat of EU sanctions.