Turkey’s Erdogan threatens to let 3m refugees into Europe
Turkish president responds angrily to parliament vote to suspend membership talks
by: Laura Pitel in Ankara and Arthur Beesley in Brussels
Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned Brussels on Friday he would allow 3m refugees to cross over to Europe unless the EU softened its criticism of Ankara.
Mr Erdogan, who has previously warned that he could put refugees “on buses” to Europe, hit out angrily in response to the non-binding vote.
“We are the ones who feed 3m-3.5m refugees in this country,” he said. “You have betrayed your promises. If you go any further those border gates will be opened.”
The EU struck a crucial but controversial immigration deal with Turkey in March after hundreds of thousands of people crossed illegally from Turkey to Greece last year.
In exchange for a series of promises, including accelerated membership talks and steps towards visa-free travel for Turkish citizens to the EU’s Schengen zone, Turkey agreed to crack down on smugglers and to accept migrants and refugees returned from Greece.
The agreement and other measures have dramatically reduced the numbers crossing the Mediterranean, but it has been complicated by growing anti-EU sentiment in Turkey and fears of increasing authoritarianism that have only deepened since July’s aborted coup attempt.
Mr Erdogan’s remarks met a chilly response in Brussels, where officials insist Europe is upholding its side of the migrant deal.
“Rhetorical threats are absolutely unhelpful and should not be the standard tone between partners,” said a senior EU official. “This will not help Turkey’s credibility in the eyes of European citizens. Europe will not be blackmailed.”
But Ankara argues that Brussels has failed to uphold its end of the bargain. European leaders, meanwhile, have been alarmed by warnings that Mr Erdogan is using the failed putsch, which left 241 people dead, as cover to pursue not only those connected to the plot but also academics, journalists, Kurdish opposition politicians and other critical voices.
The Turkish president has also threatened repeatedly to respond to popular demand to bring back the death penalty, a move the EU has warned would instantly put an end to Turkey’s longstanding accession bid.
The vote by the European Parliament reflects growing frustration and hostility on both sides of the Turkey-EU partnership but is non-binding. Only European governments have the power to put a formal end to Turkey’s accession talks.
While Austria has called for a halt to the process, Germany, France and most other EU states support continued engagement. They see Turkey, the world’s largest host of refugees, as a difficult but vital partner for tackling the migration crisis and maintaining the cohesion and stability of the bloc.
Ankara is also an important security partner in the battle against Isis, intercepting foreign jihadist fighters seeking to reach Syria or Iraq from its territory.
Some analysts have questioned whether Mr Erdogan would follow through on his ultimatum to open up the borders, given that the Turkish authorities have imposed travel restrictions on large numbers of Turkish citizens.
Several alleged leaders of the July coup attempt are reportedly on the run, while many other people have been subjected to travel restrictions since the coup, as the government has sacked 125,000 people from the military, police and the public sector.