Reuters International

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan makes a speech during his meeting with mukhtars at the Presidential Palace in Ankara, Turkey, December 1, 2016. Yasin Bulbul/Presidential Palace/Handout via REUTERS

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By Alastair Macdonald and Gabriela Baczynska

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The Dutch government has lent its weight to calls for the EU to freeze Turkey's membership talks, diplomats said on Thursday, raising the prospect of European leaders making such a move at a summit in two weeks.

A Dutch suggestion that the Union consider suspending the accession process for six months in protest at President Tayyip Erdogan's crackdown following July's coup attempt was discussed at a weekly meeting of national envoys in Brussels. There will be further consultations before the Dec. 15 summit.

Any such move, which would satisfy a call from the European Parliament last week, would be a political signal to Ankara but a largely symbolic one that would reflect the fact that accession talks have been de facto on hold for months already.

The EU executive, the European Commission, and most member states including Germany had hitherto rejected pressure to halt the membership talks, saying they preferred to keep dialogue open with Turkey, a key strategic partner, despite concern over rights abuses.

But diplomats said the intervention of the Netherlands, a founding member of the EU, added substantial weight to those favouring an official freeze, something already advocated by Austria.

Dutch Foreign Minister Bert Koenders had given parliament in The Hague a commitment during a session on Wednesday that he would look into building an EU consensus on sending Turkey a signal. He also agreed with Dutch lawmakers, however, that the EU should remain engaged in a dialogue with Turkey.

In over a decade, accession talks have made little progress and few leaders in the EU think Turkey, a Muslim country of 79 million people, would be able to join for many more years.

EU states including Germany, France and the Netherlands are even more cautious now as they face elections next year.

They fear pushing the Turkish talks forward could fuel support for radical and populist groups riding a wave of anti-migration sentiment and growing unease about Islam in the EU.

The EU also depends on Turkey to control migration to Europe. Ankara, a NATO member playing a crucial role in the Middle East, has warned it could unleash a new wave of refugees and migrants on Europe.

(Editing by Hugh Lawson)

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