Erdogan says EU woke up late to Turkey's role on migrants, no aid deal yet

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Friday, Oct 16, the European Union had woken up too late to Turkey's importance in stemming the flow of refugees from Syria.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Friday, Oct 16, the European Union had woken up too late to Turkey's importance in stemming the flow of refugees from Syria.PHOTO: AFP

ISTANBUL (REUTERS) - President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Friday (Oct 16) 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 recent overtures.

EU leaders said overnight they had agreed with Mr Erdogan on a migration "action plan", offering a possible 3 billion euros (S$4.7 billion) in aid to Turkey to help halt the migrant flow to Europe.

But Turkish Foreign Minister Feridun Sinirlioglu said the plan had not taken final shape and it was wrong to give the impression that Turkey wanted a certain amount of funds to keep refugees in Turkey.

Mr Erdogan said his Nato 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," Mr Erdogan told a conference in Istanbul.

"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, which has a 900km 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 Mr Erdogan in Istanbul on Sunday (Oct 18), said the figure of 3 billion euros, which EU officials said Ankara had requested, had been discussed and seemed reasonable.

"We have spent US$8 billion (S$11 billion) until now. How much support did the world give us? US$417 million," said Mr Erdogan, a pugnacious leader whose opponents accuse him of growing authoritarianism and whose relations with Europe have been increasingly turbulent.

"POLITICAL BRIBERY"

Mr Erdogan said Europe had woken up to the scale of Syria's refugee crisis only when pictures of the tiny body of three-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," Mr 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".

Foreign Minister Sinirlioglu later told reporters in Ankara that Turkey had told its EU partners the focus on security measures was wrong and that Ankara had pushed the idea of a secure zone to keep refugees in their own countries.

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 Mr 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.