Turkey will halt refugee deal if EU rejects Ankara’s new visa-free travel plan – minister

Turkey will halt refugee deal if EU rejects Ankara’s new visa-free travel plan – minister
The vexed migrant deal between Turkey and the EU to alleviate the refugee flows into Europe will be in jeopardy if Brussels fails to agree on the new visa liberalization scheme to be submitted by Ankara in May, the Turkish Minister for EU Affairs has said.

Speaking on the deal’s status to CNN Turk on Saturday, minister Omer Celik argued that Turkey is entitled to the visa waiver by the EU since it has been fulfilling all its obligations under the once-celebrated agreement struck by the EU and Turkey at the heat of the European refugee crisis in March 2016.

He then went on to issue what appeared to be an ultimatum to Turkey’s EU partners, saying that if they want the have agreement in place, they will have to agree to the for visa-free travel proposal to be laid out by Turkey next month.

“If they accept our proposal, the [refugee] deal will be completed in a positive way, otherwise it will come to a standstill,” the minister warned, as cited by Anadolu news agency, without elaborating on what would ensue from the mooted proposal.

Highlighting Turkey’s role in stemming the European refugee flow, Celik claimed that Ankara has rescued the EU, Anadolu cited him as saying.

While the EU-Turkey deal has helped to significantly reduced the number of migrants coming into Europe via Turkey, Ankara has repeatedly threatened to walk out of it, accusing Europe of not sticking to its commitments.

Pursuant to the agreement, Turkey pledged to take back rejected asylum seekers from Greece in exchange for an EU promise to speed up visa liberalization process, galvanize stalled membership talks as well as allocate $3.3 billion in refugee assistance. In addition, the EU pledged to resettle the same number of Syrian refugees that are sent back to Turkey.

To qualify for visa-free travel for Turkish citizens in the EU's Schengen Zone, there are a list of 72 conditions drawn up by the European Commission that Ankara should comply with. With only seven criteria left to be met, the main obstacle in its way remains the EU’s demand for Turkey to relax its strict anti-terrorism laws “in line with European standards,” which the Turkish government vehemently refuses to do. Following the foiled coup attempt in July 2016, Turkey launched an ever-widening crackdown on opposition, targeting supporters of exiled cleric Fethullah Gülen, branding them members of the so-called Fetullah Terrorist Organization (FETO).

It is not the first attempt by the Turkish leadership to use the refugee deal as leverage. It was repeatedly an issue during the run-up to the recent constitutional referendum. The vote, which ended in a narrow victory for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan last week, has significantly expanded Erdogan’s presidential powers. 

In March, Celik said that “the issue of transit from the land must be reconsidered” by Turkey. The remark closely followed Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu’s threat to scrap the deal, if the EU does not abide by it in full.

“Either [the March 2016 agreement] will be canceled, including the visa liberalization and migrant deal, or it will all be implemented," he told CNN. At roughly the same time, Turkish Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu called out Europe for failing to deliver on its promises under the deal and meddling into its internal affairs by banning Turkish officials from campaigning in Europe, promising “to blow its mind” by sending some “15,000 refugees” monthly.