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Ankara Ratchets Up EU Tensions with Refugee Deal Threat

  • Dorian Jones

FILE - Migrants stand behind a fence at the Nizip refugee camp in Gaziantep province, southeastern Turkey, April 23, 2016.

Turkey's European Union affairs minister, Omer Celik, further ratcheted up tensions with the bloc Wednesday, saying Turkey has fulfilled the obligations of its refugee agreement and sees no reason to maintain the deal, contending Brussels has failed to keep its promises.

Under last year's deal, Turkey agreed to step up security of its borders and accept migrants who entered EU countries illegally from its territory. The agreement helped slow the massive exodus of migrants into Europe.

Ankara has accused Brussels of failing to honor its side of the bargain by letting Turks travel without visas in EU countries. Brussels disputes the accusation, saying Ankara has failed to meet requirements for visa-free travel.

FILE - Riot police stand outside the Netherlands consulate as the supporters of Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan stage a protest in Istanbul, March 11, 2017.
FILE - Riot police stand outside the Netherlands consulate as the supporters of Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan stage a protest in Istanbul, March 11, 2017.

Tensions have risen with the Netherlands and Germany, which have banned Turkish ministers from campaigning to ethnic Turks before a referendum next month on extending Turkey's presidential powers.

Analysts suggest Ankara's disillusionment with the refugee deal means it has become viewed as just useful leverage in the deepening dispute with Brussels.

"An impression has been created by this [Turkish] government this was a mistake from the beginning in negotiating this deal. It turned into a bartering situation. You give this, you give us the visas and we will give you this and that sort of thing," noted political columnist Semih Idiz of the Al Monitor website. Idiz warns the latest dispute is already causing alarm in Europe. "Greece, I understand, is in panic because there is the fear [that] without the deal then we will have the disorganized flood of people again."

War of words

Turkey's president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has led an unprecedented war of words against Dutch and German leaders, and the wider EU has also been strongly condemned by Ankara for failing to take its side.

FILE - Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan talks during a rally in Istanbul, March 12, 2017.
FILE - Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan talks during a rally in Istanbul, March 12, 2017.

Political consultant Atilla Yesilada of Global Source Partners says such rhetoric is aimed at consolidating Erdogan's nationalist voting base before the April referendum that polls indicate remains too close to call. Yesilada says Ankara would probably be bluffing in threatening to cancel the refugee deal, given its likely consequences.

"Taking such a step would mean cutting the umbilical cord to the EU. Because it's not ordinary times for the EU. Such a step would come right before the French and a few months before the German elections. I would assume Europe would do something in return — a temporary suspension of accession talks might be brought to the table," Yesilada said.

A suspension of EU talks would add to Turkey's growing diplomatic isolation. "This will weaken Turkey's links to Europe," warned columnist Idiz. "We already have strained relations with the U.S. The only country that will be happy is Russia, which is trying to pull Turkey away from the West."

Economic impact

Such a move would also deal a major blow to the country's already struggling economy. This week the latest unemployment figures were at a seven-year high of 12.7 percent.

Analysts point out with Turkey hosting more than 3 million refugees, it needs support from Europe in coping with the cost, which Ankara says is more than $10 billion.

Given that pressure is growing in Europe to harden its stance toward Turkey, observers warn Erdogan could be cornering himself.

"They [Erdogan and government] may be trapped by their own rhetoric at the end of the day," said Idiz, "because they are so obsessed about the domestic situation, the referendum and the animosity, deep feelings they've created and they may not have a back gear, in all this, and that's the danger."

Analysts suggest the danger to the refugee deal is further heightened because of the lack of checks and balances to Erdogan's power

"It's probably a bluff, but in a democratic country, you look at what the parliament thinks, what the opposition thinks, none of which is the case in Turkey," observed consultant Yesilada. "One morning, Mr. Erdogan can wake up in a bad mood and say 'well, just sign the forms and the refugee deal is no longer valid' and no one will have the courage to say 'this is wrong, what are you doing. '"

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