Erdogan says Europe not ready to face 3mn refugees as EU-Turkey deal collapse looms

Refugees wait for the arrival of officals at Nizip refugee camp near Gaziantep © Umit Bektas
The Turkish president issued a veiled threat to unleash a wave of refugees on Europe as EU officials warn of a potential collapse of the union’s deal with Ankara, which has curbed the flow of refugees across the Aegean Sea.

Speaking to Al Jazeera, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Turkey is currently hosting three million refuges on its territory and that if they all marched into Europe, the Europeans would not know what to do with them. He also reminded them that under the terms of Turkey’s refugee deal with the EU, the union pledged to provide six billion euros in aid over the course of several years.

“As far as I can remember, until now the EU had only given 250-300 million Euros to Turkey so far,” he said.

The veiled threat comes days after several officials in Europe voiced concern that the EU has no contingency plan for a collapse of the Turkish deal.

“As the deal between the EU and Turkey is turning more and more fragile and the first cracks are becoming visible, we must make sure that we are ready to act,” Austrian Defense Minister Hans Peter Doskozil told journalists on Monday.

Turkish officials repeatedly threatened to walk away from the deal if Brussels fails to grant the Turks visa-free travel as promised. The EU will not do that unless Turkey changes its anti-terrorism laws, but Ankara adamantly rejects the demand.

The conflict is aggravated by other issues. The EU criticizes Turkey for cracking down on officials and journalists allegedly linked to self-exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen, who was accused of organizing a failed military coup in Turkey in July. The Europeans believe that Ankara went too far in dealing with the aftermath of the putsch, particularly regarding the proposal to reinstate capital punishment.

This attitude was reflected in a scathing report published this Wednesday, which calls into question Turkey’s aspiration to become an EU member.

“The coup attempt of July 15 was an attack on democracy per se. Given the seriousness of the situation, a swift reaction to the threat was legitimate,” the EU’s top enlargement official, Johannes Hahn, said. “However, the large scale and collective nature of measures taken over the last months raise very serious concerns.

“Turkey as a candidate country must fulfill the highest standards in the field of the rule of law and fundamental rights. In this year’s report we therefore stress Turkey’s backsliding in the area of rule of law and fundamental rights,” he told Reuters.

READ MORE: New EU report slams Turkey for ‘relapse’ in attacks on press freedom – German media

Erdogan’s spokesman Ibrahim Kalin said that the EU “will have to live with the results,” if it froze accession negotiations with Turkey.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier is to travel to Turkey next week in an attempt to deflate the tension. Speaking before German lawmakers on Thursday, he said the EU should not make hasty decisions about Turkey.

“If we slam the door now and throw away the key, then we will disappoint many people in Turkey who are looking to Europe for help and support, especially now,” he said.

He added, however, that if Turkey does reinstate the death penalty, which it formally abandoned in 2002, it would result in an “unmistakable end” of negotiations on Turkish entry into the bloc.

“We want good relations with Turkey, but the reality has changed and we have to adjust our policies accordingly,” Steinmeier acknowledged.