Boris Johnson stunned his EU foreign minister counterparts this afternoon by calling on the bloc to tone down its opposition to Turkey reintroducing the death penalty, it has been reported.
Diplomats present at the foreign ministers’ meeting in Brussels said that Mr Johnson had warned against pushing Turkey “into a corner” over the issue.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan backed the return of the death penalty this summer after he purged over 100,000 potential political opponents from the country’s civil service and arrested opposition political parties.
With Turkey still on paper a candidate for EU ascension and the abolition of the death penalty a condition of joining the bloc, a number of European countries have called for a halt to Turkey’s accession negotiations.
One diplomat described Mr Johnson’s intervention as “unbelievable”, according to The Financial Times newspaper.
Mr Johnson told the room that some EU states had previously taken time to abolish the death penalty in the 1980s and 1990s – and that this had no been an automatic bar on membership.
Foreign diplomats and ministers in the room are said to have interpreted Mr Johnson's comments as a suggestion that the EU accession rules could be bent for Turkey.
A British diplomatic source with knowledge of the meeting however told The Independent that “the Foreign Secretary was in no way defending Erdogan but simply stating the facts”.
“The Foreign Secretary opposes the death penalty in all circumstances,” he added.
Mr Johnson campaigned hard for Brexit during the European Union referendum campaign on the basis that Turkey was about to join the bloc and open up free movement with the UK.
Since his appointment to the Cabinet the former Mayor of London has said however clarified that he in fact supports Turkey joining the EU.
“We should not push Turkey into a corner, we should not overreact in a way that is against our collective interests,” Mr Johnson told reporters outside the meeting.
Countries including the UK and Finland are understood to favour the continuation of Turkish EU accession negotiations because they see them as a way of influencing Turkey, a regional power in the febrile Middle Eastern region.
Turkey is currently intervening in the Syrian civil war, where it is fighting both the Isis militant group and the Kurdish-backed Syrian Democratic Forces.
Mr Erdogan has said he might put Turkey's EU accession talks to a referendum in order to speed up or end the process, which have been fully and officially underway since 1999.
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