The Turkish guest was in no mood for diplomatic reticence. In the midst of a “fight against terrorists,” it was impossible for Turkey to change its laws, Ankara’s minister for E.U. affairs, Volkan Bozkir, said during a visit to the European Parliament Wednesday, referring to Turkey’s conflict with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).
“I am here to talk about these matters perhaps for the last time to prevent a mistake,” he said. It was an unmistakable threat, and it reiterated what President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had already made clear: Turkey has no intention of changing its anti-terrorism laws, one of the E.U.’s preconditions for allowing visa-free travel for Turkish citizens.
Speeding up the visa liberalization was one of the concessions Turkey extracted from the European Union in a deal signed on March 18. In return it agreed to take back all migrants and refugees who cross the Aegean to enter Greece illegally. For each Syrian returned, the European Union would accept a Syrian refugee from a camp within Turkey.
Now Turkey’s position could jeopardize that agreement. Burhan Kuzu, an adviser to Erdogan and a member of Turkey’s parliament for the ruling AKP party, tweeted on Tuesday: “The European Parliament will discuss the report that will open Europe visa-free for Turkish citizens. If the wrong decision is taken, we will send the refugees (back to Europe).”
But both the E.U. and the German government are refusing to budge.
Members of the European Parliament, which needs to approve the visa liberalization, said they won’t even deal with the proposal before Turkey meets all the criteria.
German lawmaker Alexander Graf Lambsdorff, vice president of the European Parliament, said the E.U. must not make any political concessions to Turkey.
“Erdogan’s aim isn’t to wreck relations with the E.U. but to immortalize himself as second state founder alongside Atatürk”
“We mustn’t alienate our citizens, a majority of whom are skeptical, with an overhasty visa liberalization,” he told Handelsblatt.
Chancellor Angela Merkel and her interior minister, Thomas de Maizière, told lawmakers from their Christian Democratic Union party this week that all 72 conditions for visa-free travel needed to be met in full.
From Europe’s point of view, Ankara has failed to meet at least five of those conditions. In particular, the E.U. is insisting on a reform of Turkey’s anti-terrorism laws which at present allow the prosecution of journalists and government critics without concrete grounds for suspicion.
The German government is also worried that the visa liberalization would allow Mr. Erdogan to deport political opponents more easily. Since the start of the year, 740 Turks, most of them Kurds, have applied for political asylum in Germany.
The deal with Turkey is crucial for Ms. Merkel because it has sharply reduced the number of refugees reaching Germany. Some 1.3 million people passed through Turkey to reach Europe since the start of 2015, with over 1 million reaching Germany, putting Ms. Merkel under intense political pressure at home.
Ever since the Balkan Route was closed and the E.U.-Turkey deal was implemented, however, the numbers have fallen sharply.
For now, Ms. Merkel is continuing to bank on the agreement remaining intact. A government spokesman said this week there was no “Plan B” and denied media reports that several E.U. states were considering an alternative plan for handling refugees if the deal with Turkey collapses.
But the two sides are talking about each other rather than to each other right now. Since the resignation of Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu last week there’s no one to talk to in Ankara, complained officials in Berlin.
The E.U. thinks it’s better prepared for a renewed surge in refugee numbers.
Political advisors are warning Europe to avoid an escalation which can only damage its interests. “Berlin and Brussels shouldn’t overstress the visa issue,” said Gerald Knaus, head of the European Stability Initiative think tank. “There’s no alternative to Turkey in the refugee question,” he argued. Any Plan B, such as gathering refuges in Greece and preventing them from travelling on to other European countries, was either unworkable or questionable from a human rights point of view, he said.
Mr. Erdogan recently eased the pressure a little by saying visa liberalization should be in place “by October at the latest.” Before, Ankara had insisted on July 1 as the start date, which forced both sides to hurry up with arrangements.
“A lot has been achieved, now great care has to be taken to remove the last hurdles,” said German deputy foreign minister, Michael Roth.
Berlin government sources have been pointing out that Mr. Erdogan needs the E.U. as much as vice versa. He’s unlikely to want Turkey to become a giant refugee camp, and caring for them costs money, the sources said. Under the deal, Ankara is to get €6 billion to house the 2.8 million Syrians living in Turkey, who have fled the five-year civil war in their country. Besides, Turkey needed to maintain access to European markets, the sources said, adding that the Turkish leader could have no interest in severing links with Europe.
At the same time, the E.U. thinks it’s better prepared for a renewed surge in refugee numbers.
Politicians in Berlin and Brussels believe the conflict with Ankara will likely calm down once Mr. Erdogan reaches his real goal: establishing a presidential system in Turkey that will increase his power. He could secure the two-thirds majority required for a change in the constitution by forming a coalition with right-wing nationalists or by calling new elections.
“Erdogan’s aim isn’t to wreck relations with the E.U. but to immortalize himself as second state founder alongside Atatürk, as the man who is giving religion a greater role in state affairs again,” said Mr. Lambsdorff.
Gerd Höhler is Handelsblatt’s Athens correspondent. Till Hoppe covers security policy. Thomas Ludwig reports on the E.U. from Brussels. Donata Riedel covers German politics from Berlin. Thomas Sigmund is Berlin bureau chief. To contact the authors: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org.