President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey threatened to “open the gates” to Europe for millions of Syrian refugees as he lashed out at Brussels over growing criticism of his crackdown on opponents.
Mr Erdogan made the comments shortly before the European Commission castigated his administration on Wednesday for purging more than 100,000 soldiers, judges, civil servants and teachers from their posts since a failed coup in July.
The war of words comes amid pressure from some EU countries to suspend talks with Ankara over Turkish membership.
Publishing a report into the state of Turkey’s long-stalled EU accession bid, Johannes Hahn, the EU enlargement commissioner, said Brussels was gravely concerned by the “degradation in the rule of law and democracy” since the attempted putsch.
But Mr Erdogan suggested to a group of Turkish business leaders that European leaders were afraid to halt the country’s accession talks because that could lead to a fresh influx of migrants.
“They say unabashedly and shamelessly that the EU should review its negotiations with Turkey. You are late, go and review them as soon as you can. But don’t just review them — go and make your final decision,” Mr Erdogan said.
“You know those 3mln refugees in Turkey? They say there is a problem.” he added.
“What if the negotiations end and they open the gates, where would we put those 3mln refugees? That is their worry. That is why they cannot come to the end point.”
But Turkey has accepted no more than a few hundred refugees as talks stalled over Mr Erdogan’s refusal to bring antiterrorism laws closer to European standards.
An October deadline he set for the introduction of visa-free travel expired without a breakthrough.
Fresh tension between the EU and Mr Erdogan comes as accession talks are also threatened by the Turkish leader’s proposal to restore the death penalty, which was removed from Turkish law more than a decade ago to support its application for EU membership.
Brussels officials say a restoration of the death penalty would halt accession talks, although Mr Hahn said any decision on whether Turkey should remain an EU candidate country was for member states to make.
Most want to keep the talks going, but Austria has pushed for talks to be suspended while Luxembourg’s foreign minister has called for sanctions against Turkey, saying the purge evokes memories of the Nazi era.
“As far as I can remember, until now the EU had only given 250-300 million Euros to Turkey so far,” he said.
The veiled threat comes days after several officials in Europe voiced concern that the EU has no contingency plan for a collapse of the Turkish deal.
“As the deal between the EU and Turkey is turning more and more fragile and the first cracks are becoming visible, we must make sure that we are ready to act,” Austrian Defense Minister Hans Peter Doskozil told journalists on Monday.
Turkish officials repeatedly threatened to walk away from the deal if Brussels fails to grant the Turks visa-free travel as promised.
The EU will not do that unless Turkey changes its anti-terrorism laws, but Ankara adamantly rejects the demand.
The conflict is aggravated by other issues.
The EU criticizes Turkey for cracking down on officials and journalists allegedly linked to self-exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen, who was accused of organizing a failed military coup in Turkey in July.
The Europeans believe that Ankara went too far in dealing with the aftermath of the putsch, particularly regarding the proposal to reinstate capital punishment.
This attitude was reflected in a scathing report published this Wednesday, which calls into question Turkey’s aspiration to become an EU member.
“The coup attempt of July 15 was an attack on democracy per se. Given the seriousness of the situation, a swift reaction to the threat was legitimate,” the EU’s top enlargement official, Johannes Hahn, said. “However, the large scale and collective nature of measures taken over the last months raise very serious concerns.
“Turkey as a candidate country must fulfill the highest standards in the field of the rule of law and fundamental rights. In this year’s report we therefore stress Turkey’s backsliding in the area of rule of law and fundamental rights,” he told Reuters.
Erdogan’s spokesman Ibrahim Kalin said that the EU “will have to live with the results,” if it froze accession negotiations with Turkey.
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier is to travel to Turkey next week in an attempt to deflate the tension.
Speaking before German lawmakers on Thursday, he said the EU should not make hasty decisions about Turkey.
“If we slam the door now and throw away the key, then we will disappoint many people in Turkey who are looking to Europe for help and support, especially now,” he said.
He added, however, that if Turkey does reinstate the death penalty, which it formally abandoned in 2002, it would result in an “unmistakable end” of negotiations on Turkish entry into the bloc.
“We want good relations with Turkey, but the reality has changed and we have to adjust our policies accordingly,” Steinmeier acknowledged.