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EU, Germany: Ball in Turkey's Court on Visa Waiver Issue

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses his supporters in Ankara, Turkey, Thursday, May 12, 2016. Erdogan says his country is gearing up to "clear" the Syrian side of its frontier in response to cross-border fire from the Islamic State group.

Turkey and the European Union faced off Thursday over a proposed deal to let Turks travel to Europe without visas — a crucial carrot the bloc has been dangling in order to get Turkey to halt the torrent of migrants flowing from its shores to EU member Greece.

But with each side insisting the other give ground over an EU demand that Ankara more sharply define its anti-terror laws before it gets the visa waiver, a prolonged waiting game appeared to be shaping up.

The issue of visa-free travel to Europe for Turks could ultimately derail an EU-Turkey accord under which Ankara agreed to stop migrants from leaving for Europe and take back those who do arrive. For the moment, though, the migration deal that was sealed in mid-March remains on track.

The waiver is an incentive, along with up to 6 billion euros ($6.8 billion) and fast-track EU membership talks, for Turkey to stop the migrant flow. But now the two sides appear in danger of missing the planned visa waiver date of June 30.

Turkey has already fulfilled most of the 72 conditions to secure the waiver but one has emerged as a major obstacle. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and other officials say Ankara won't narrow its definition of "terrorist'' and "terrorist act.'' EU nations worry that the current laws can be used to target journalists and political dissenters.

Erdogan has warned that the entire migrant deal could collapse if the Europeans renege on their pledges. There still appears to be some maneuvering room — Erdogan said this week that Turkey would go its own way if the visa waiver isn't introduced by October.

Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, a key architect of the migrant deal, announced last week that he will step down later this month. It's unclear who will succeed him.

In Berlin, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier acknowledged that "we have a strong interest in this agreement on migration not collapsing.''

However, he said Thursday that he can't influence Ankara's stance on the anti-terror law and "the ball is in Turkey's court.'' He said "if Turkey fulfills its commitments'' the EU should, too.

The head of the EU's executive Commission said Brussels is counting on Turkey to stick to the conditions — including changing its anti-terror laws.

"That's how we agreed it with Turkey, and the consequence of the change in the office of the Turkish prime minister cannot be that agreements between the European Union and Turkey are disavowed,'' Jean-Claude Juncker said.

Juncker noted that Turks are eager to rid themselves of the hassle of getting a visa every time they travel to Europe.

"If Mr. Erdogan is pursuing the strategy of denying Turks the right to free travel to Europe, then he will have to take responsibility for that to the Turkish people,'' Juncker said.

In Ankara, Erdogan argued that the ball is in the EU's court.

"We will either strengthen our relations with the European Union and we will finalize this process, or we will find ourselves a new path,'' he said. "Our preference is to build a new Turkey together with our European friends. We shall now wait for our European friends' decision.''

"They are saying we should soften our stance on the fight against terrorism,'' he added. "Since when have you started to govern Turkey? Who gave you the authority?''