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Turkey visa deal unravels as Erdogan defies EU on key condition

By AFP - May 12,2016 - Last updated at May 12,2016

A family walk on their way to Idomeni camp, Greece, after a group of migrants and refugees tried to cross the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia’s border, on Wednesday (AP photo)

ANKARA — A deal to grant Turks visa-free travel to most of the European Union was hanging by a thread Thursday after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan defiantly vowed Ankara would not fulfil a key condition set by Brussels.

With alarm growing over the deal's future, European Commission Chief Jean-Claude Juncker bluntly told Erdogan that Turks would only enjoy travel to the passport-free Schengen area if all conditions were met and it would be "his problem" if this failed to materialise.

The promise of visa-free travel is a key pillar of the landmark March accord for Turkey to stem the flow of migrants to the EU and this could now also be in peril.

Erdogan accused the European Union of "hypocrisy" for telling Ankara to adapt its counter-terror laws in return for visa-free travel while it was in the throes of fighting Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) rebels.

"The EU stands up and says 'soften your approach over the terrorist organisation'," Erdogan said in a speech in Ankara, referring to the PKK. 

"Since when are you running this country? Who has given you the authority?" he asked, in one of his most stinging attacks in recent weeks on the EU.

"They believe they have a right for themselves [to fight terror] but find it a luxury and unacceptable for us. Let me say it clearly — this is called hypocrisy."

'Not my problem, his problem' 

Turkey concluded a deal with the EU in March to curb the migrant flow to Europe in return for political incentives including the visa-free travel as well as billions of euros in aid from Brussels for refugees.

Ankara however is obliged to meet the remaining five out of 72 conditions for its citizens to enjoy visa-free travel to Europe.

But with the Turkish military battling the PKK in the Kurdish-majority southeast, Turkey says it cannot change its counter-terror laws.

Juncker's comments indicated the EU saw no room for negotiation if Turkey did not fulfil all the conditions.

"We consider that it is important for these conditions to be fulfilled, otherwise this deal between the EU and Turkey will not happen," Juncker said in Berlin.

"If Mr Erdogan wants to pursue his strategy, then he has to answer to the Turkish people why Europe is denying free travel to Turks. That's not my problem, that will be his problem."

'Difficulties arise' 

European parliament president Martin Schulz said that the deal was struck not with an individual but with the Turkish government, in reference to the departure of Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu.

"We also believe that mutual understanding is better than mutual threats," he said.

The EU wants Ankara to sharply narrow its definition of "terror" to prevent recent cases like the prosecution of academics and journalists for publishing "terror propaganda".

A European diplomat told AFP: "We don't have a plan B" if the deal — which so far helped migrant flows to Europe fall sharply — collapsed.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who spearheaded efforts to conclude the deal, said, "We must recognise that we need such an agreement with Turkey in any case and that it is worth the effort to negotiate it even if difficulties arise."

Erdogan remained defiant and said it was a "historic mistake" for Turkey's relations with the EU to be determined by "the terrorist organisation [PKK] and the politicians' demands that are guided by it".

He said if the EU preferred to take the "terrorist organisation" as its interlocutor instead of Turkey, "there's no problem from our perspective”.

Turkey has for decades sought to become a member of the EU but its bid has hit repeated stumbling blocks, sparking increasing bitterness in Ankara.

The Turkish president, who has sought to build closer relations with key Arab and Asian states during his presidency, said Turkey had alternatives to the EU.

"In the period ahead of us, either we will develop our relations with the EU and finally get on this road or we will find a new road for ourselves," he said. 

 

"We prefer to build new Turkey together with our European friends. We will now await our European friends' decision."

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