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European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker welcomes Turkey's President Tayyip Erdogan (L) at the EU Commission headquarters in Brussels, Belgium October 5, 2015. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir(reuters_tickers)
STRASBOURG (Reuters) - The president of the European Commission said on Wednesday he saw no prospect of Turkey joining the EU in "the foreseeable future" but he had a more optimistic message for six Western Balkan nations also seeking membership.
The European Union has become increasingly critical of Turkey's decades-long membership drive after President Tayyip Erdogan launched a major crackdown on critics - including journalists and academics - after a failed 2016 coup.
"Turkey has been taking giant strides away from the European Union for some time," Jean-Claude Juncker, head of the executive Commission, said in his annual keynote speech to the European Parliament on the state of the bloc.
"Accession candidates must give the rule of law, justice and fundamental rights utmost priority. This rules out EU membership for Turkey for the foreseeable future."
Juncker referred to a war of words between Berlin and Ankara, in which Erdogan accused Berlin of "Nazi-like" tactics, prompting Chancellor Angela Merkel to call for an end to Turkey's membership talks, despite it being a crucial NATO ally.
"Journalists belong in newsrooms not in prisons. They belong where freedom of expression reigns," Juncker said. "Stop insulting our member states by comparing their leaders to fascists and Nazis."
Formally ending Turkey's accession negotiations would require unanimity among EU states, which is lacking, though majority backing is enough to suspend them.
EU leaders will discuss Turkey at a summit in Brussels in October, though any formal decision may not come before next spring.
WESTERN BALKAN PERSPECTIVE
Juncker put a final stamp on the EU's recently-revived engagement in the Balkans, where Serbia, Albania, Macedonia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Kosovo all want to join the EU one day.
"If we want more stability in our neighbourhood, then we must maintain a credible enlargement perspective for the Western Balkans," Juncker said.
The region on the EU's south-eastern edge, still scarred by the wars fought along political, ethnic and religious lines in the 1990s, is important for the bloc for issues from controlling immigration to countering security threats.
Earlier this year, the EU accused Russia of seeking to destabilise the Western Balkans - which Moscow denied - and its concerns have led to a renewed engagement in the region.
With Britain now scheduled to exit the EU in 2019, Juncker said he saw no new enlargement of the bloc before 2020.
"But thereafter the European Union will be greater than 27 in number," he added.
EU officials say Serbia, Albania and Macedonia could be closest to joining, possibly allowing for an EU of 30 states by around 2025, though they avoid setting any firm deadlines.
Juncker's comments came in a speech in which he urged the EU to "catch the wind" in its sails after years of battling crises from the euro zone to migration to Brexit.
(Reporting by Alastair Macdonald, writing by Gabriela Baczynska; Editing by Gareth Jones)