Turkey: no deal yet with EU on migrant ‘action plan’

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, left, is greeted by European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker prior to a meeting at EU headquarters in Brussels on Monday, Oct. 5, 2015. (AP)

President Tayyip Erdogan said on Friday the European Union had woken up too late to Turkey’s importance in stemming the flow of refugees from Syria and accused it of insincerity in talks on Turkish membership despite its recent overtures.

A spokesman for the ruling AK Party meanwhile said there was no conclusive agreement yet on a possible 3 billion euro ($3.4 billion) EU aid offer, which European leaders said overnight they had agreed with Erdogan under a migration “action plan,” and that negotiations were continuing.

Finance Minister Mehmet Simsek also said on Friday Turkey would welcome the possible $3.4 bln in aid but said he could not confirm whether the funds would actually be disbursed.

Simsek also said Turkey’s security and defence spending would rise to 55 billion lira next year from 47.4 billion in 2015. Turkey is battling both the spillover from Syria’s civil war and a Kurdish insurgency in its ownsoutheast.

Erdogan made clear Turkey would not roll over easily on the issue, arguing that his nation’s proximity to Syria and its key role in handling the refugee crisis had strengthened its case for EU membership.

“The West and Europe’s security and stability is contingent on our security and stability. They have accepted this now. In the talks I held in Brussels last week they accepted all this. It can't happen without Turkey,” Erdogan told a conference in Istanbul on gender equality.

“So if it can’t happen without Turkey, why don’t you take Turkey into the EU? The problem is clear but they are not open. They are not clear. They say ‘We made a mistake on NATO, let’s not make the same mistake on the EU’. That is the problem,” he said.

The action plan aims for greater cooperation with Turkey, a NATO member which has a 900 km (560-mile) border with Syria, on improving the lives of the more than 2 million Syrian refugees in Turkey and on encouraging them to stay put.

Though the plan put no figure on “substantial and concrete new funds” the EU would offer, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who will meet Erdogan in Istanbul on Sunday, said the figure of 3 billion euros, which EU officials said Ankara had requested, had been discussed and seemed reasonable.

“We have spent $8 billion until now. How much support did the world give us? $417 million,” said Erdogan, a pugnacious leader whose opponents accuse him of growing authoritarianism and whose relations with Europe have been increasingly turbulent.

‘Political bribery’

Erdogan said Europe had only woken up to the scale of Syria’s refugee crisis when pictures of the tiny body of 3-year old Aylan Kurdi, whose family was trying to reach Europe, washed up on a beach near the Turkish resort of Bodrum last month.

“When that toddler Aylan washed up on the Bodrum shores, they started using that photo on the front of their magazines and started questioning themselves,” Erdogan said.

“Ok, but how long have we been shouting and calling? In Turkey now there are 2.2 million Syrians alone. There are 300,000 Iraqis,” he said.

AK Party spokesman Omer Celik said the migration crisis and Turkish accession negotiations were two separate issues and that membership talks should not be “a matter of political bribery.”

In formal conclusions agreed by the 28 national leaders at a late-night meeting, Turkey was offered an accelerated path to giving its citizens visa-free travel to the EU, provided it met previously agreed conditions.

Clinching such a deal could be a boon to Erdogan ahead of a parliamentary election on Nov. 1 at which the ruling AK Party he founded is trying to win back a majority it lost in June for the first time in more than a decade.

For many Turks, travelling to Europe without a visa is far more important than EU membership itself.

“It might make sense for Erdogan to give the good news to Turkish citizens that, thanks to his efforts, they can travel to Europe without visas, with the possibility of turning this into votes,” columnist Murat Yetkin wrote in the Hurriyet Daily News.

But, in a piece entitled “Merkel suddenly falls in love with Erdogan,” he questioned whether the German chancellor or the EU would be able to deliver on their promises.

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