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Tensions between EU and Turkey escalate over Erdogan insults

BRUSSELS – Tensions between the European Union and Turkey have risen further after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan questioned the mental state of his French counterpart, Emmanuel Macron.

Several EU officials harshly criticized Erdogan's comments over the weekend and the bloc's executive arm, the European Commission, said on Monday that the Turkish leader should change his approach if he does not want to derail the bloc's attempts at renewed dialogue with his country.

Erdogan said Saturday that Macron needed his head examined. He made the comments during a local party congress, apparently in response to statements Macron made this month about problems created by radical Muslims in France who practice what the French leader termed “Islamist separatism.” Erdogan also railed against France for condoning caricatures of the prophet of Islam.

In an unusual move, France announced Saturday it was recalling its ambassador for consultations. The French presidential office noted as well that Turkey had called for a boycott of French products. The move, if taken to heart, could add a layer of economic ramifications to the deepening diplomatic tussle.

Erdogan, who said the French leader has “lost his way,” continued on the same offensive tone Monday as he called on Muslim nations to come to the assistance of Muslims in France. In a speech at a ceremony marking the anniversary of the birth of the prophet, the Turkish leader accused European leaders of conducting anti-Islam policies.

“You are fascists in the true meaning of the world. You are veritably the link in the Nazi chain,” he said in reference to European leaders.

The spat comes as tensions between France and Turkey have intensified in recent months over issues that include the fighting in Syria, Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh, a region within Azerbaijan that is controlled by ethnic Armenian separatists.

In a message posted on Twitter Sunday, the EU foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, slammed Erdogan comments as “unacceptable” and urged Turkey to “stop this dangerous spiral of confrontation.”

European Council President Charles Michel blamed Turkey for resorting to “provocations, unilateral actions in the Mediterranean and now “insults."

At a summit earlier this month, EU member states agreed to review Turkey’s behavior in December and threatened to impose sanctions if Erdogan's “provocations" do not stop, a council statement said.

EU spokesman Peter Stano said Monday he did not exclude an urgent meeting of EU ministers at an earlier date following Erdogan’s latest comments.

“We clearly expect a change in action and declarations from the Turkish side,” Stano said at a news conference. He said there would be many discussions “to see whether we are going to continue to wait or take action earlier.”

Several EU member states leaders rallied around France in Macron's spat with Erdogan. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said his country stood with France “for the freedom of speech and against extremism and radicalism." Stressing Germany’s solidarity with France in the fight against Islamic extremists, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas described Erdogan’s insults of Macron as “a new low point."

In Greece, president Katerina Sakellaropoulou said Erdogan's rhetoric “fuels religious fanaticism and intolerance in the name of a clash of civilizations, (and) cannot be tolerated."

Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades said Erdogan’s remarks used phrases and characterizations that are “unacceptable in international practice and diplomacy.”

“This attack against the French President by a leader of a candidate country for accession to the EU is a vulgar affront to European values and principles,” said Anastasiades,

Still, Stano insisted that Turkey remains a “very important partner” for the 27-nation bloc and that “no one will profit from more confrontation."

The increase in tensions has not helped Turkey’s negotiations on joining the EU, the world’s biggest trade bloc, which began in 2005 but have stood at a standstill in recent years. Turkey is the EU's fifth largest trading partner and the bloc relies on Ankara to stop migrants from entering the bloc through its borders with Greece and Bulgaria.

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Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey, Geir Moulson in Berlin, Mike Corder in The Hague, Elena Becatoros in Athens and Menelaos Hadjicostis in Nicosia contributed to this story.