Turkey faces 'difficult path' to EU visa-free travel: German minister

August 16, 2016 11:55 AM EDT

Germany's Minister of State for Europe Michael Roth addresses the United Nations (UN) General Assembly during a meeting about the rise of anti-Semitism, at the UN headquarters in New York January 22, 2015. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

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By Andrea Shalal and Michael Nienaber

BERLIN (Reuters) - Turkey faces a long and arduous path to obtaining visa-free travel within the European Union, and immediate prospects are not bright, Germany's European affairs minister said on Tuesday.

Michael Roth told Reuters that it was clear from the start that a migrant deal struck between the EU and Turkey required completion of 72 criteria before Turks could be granted visa-free travel.

"Turkey faces a very long and difficult path. The criteria must be fulfilled, and it doesn't look good at the moment," Roth said. "As long as the 72 criteria have not been fulfilled - and a few are still open - there cannot be visa liberalization."

At the same time, Roth said it was important to keep open channels of communication with Turkey, which would remain an important partner given the refugee crisis, and because of the presence of over 3 million people in Germany of Turkish descent.

Finance Minster Wolfgang Schaeuble, a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union, said it was important to continue working with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan to ensure his help in dealing with a flood of refugees from countries like Syria and Iraq.

"I absolutely don't like what Erdogan is doing, but I don't agree that ... we should end cooperation with him," Schaeuble told an event in the northern German city of Rostock on Tuesday evening. "It is in our own interest to keep working together."

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu had warned on Monday that Turkey could walk away from its promise to stem the flow of illegal migrants to Europe if the EU failed to grant Turks visa-free travel to the bloc in October.

Tensions between Ankara and the West have been aggravated by the failed coup attempt in Turkey on July 15. Turkey is incensed by what it sees as an insensitive response from Western allies to the failed putsch, in which 240 people were killed.

Roth, a member of the center-left Social Democrat junior partners in Merkel's ruling coalition, said Germany would continue to raise its concerns about Erdogan's detention of more than 35,000 people in a crackdown on suspected putschists.

Shortly after Roth spoke, German broadcaster ARD published part of a confidential government report which it said marked the first official assessment linking Erdogan's government to support for Islamist and terrorist groups.

"The many expressions of solidarity and support actions by the ruling AKP and President Erdogan for the Egyptian MB (Muslim Brotherhood), Hamas and groups of armed Islamist opposition in Syria emphasize their ideological affinity with the (broader) Muslim Brotherhood," ARD cited the government report as saying.

Egypt has designated the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization. The group says it rejects violence. The European Union and the United States have blacklisted Hamas as a terrorist group.

The report said Turkey had become "the central hub for Islamist groups in the Middle East region as a result of the gradually Islamicized domestic and foreign policy of Ankara since 2011," ARD reported.

Germany's leftist Linke party said the report - which came in response to its parliamentary query - required a radical shift in Germany's approach towards Ankara.

"The German government cannot publicly designate the godfather of terrorism Erdogan as a partner, while internally warning about Turkey as a hub for terrorism," said Sevim Dagdalen, a lawmaker and member of the Linke party.

The German government released part of its response to the party, but declined comment on the secret portion.

Even members of Merkel's Christian Democrats raised concerns about the report, which the interior ministry said it had not cleared with the foreign ministry due to a "office mistake."

Roderich Kiesewetter, a conservative lawmaker and member of the parliamentary foreign affairs committee, said the assessment was "extremely concerning," but cutting off ties with Turkey would only strengthen radical elements there, the Handelsblatt newspaper.

(Reporting by Andrea Shalal, Michael Nienaber and Andreas Rinke; Editing by Richard Balmforth and Ralph Boulton)

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