When reporting yesterday on the abrupt deterioration in European-Turkish relations, in which the European Parliament voted Thursday in an overhwleming majority to impose a temporary, non-binding freeze on talks for Turkey's accession into the EU, we said that it "remains unclear if Turkey will proceed with releasing the nearly three million Syrian refugees allegedly contained within its borders as a result of the European Parliament vote." Today we have an answer: as the FT reports, Turkish president Erdogan warned Brussels on Friday he would allow 3 million refugees to cross over to Europe unless the EU softened its criticism of Ankara.
The furious Turkish leader lashed out a day after the European Parliament called for a pause in Turkey’s EU accession talks in protest at Ankara’s “repressive” and “disproportionate” response to a violent coup attempt earlier this year.
“We are the ones who feed 3m-3.5m refugees in this country,” he said. “You have betrayed your promises. If you go any further those border gates will be opened.”
To be sure, this is not the first such gambit by Erdogan, who has previously warned that he could put refugees “on buses” to Europe. However, in the past Europe had never escalated to the point where the vast majority of the EP made it clear that unless Erdogan backs off his authoritarian ambitions, the key negotiation in progress with Turkey would end. As such, it puts Erdogan in a tight spot: concede domestically, and be seen weak, or push on hoping that his threat will force Europe to de-escalate.
Earlier in 2016, in exchange for a series of promises, including accelerated membership talks and steps towards visa-free travel for Turkish citizens to the EU’s Schengen zone and billions in promptly embezzled funds, Turkey agreed to crack down on smugglers and to accept migrants and refugees returned from Greece. The agreement and other measures have dramatically reduced the numbers crossing the Mediterranean, but it has been complicated by growing anti-EU sentiment in Turkey and fears of increasing authoritarianism that have only deepened since July’s aborted coup attempt.
As expected, Erdogan’s remarks met a chilly response in Brussels the FT notes, where officials insist Europe is upholding its side of the migrant deal.
“Rhetorical threats are absolutely unhelpful and should not be the standard tone between partners,” said a senior EU official. “This will not help Turkey’s credibility in the eyes of European citizens. Europe will not be blackmailed.”
But Ankara argues that Brussels has failed to uphold its end of the bargain. European leaders, meanwhile, have been alarmed by warnings that Mr Erdogan is using the failed putsch, which left 241 people dead, as cover to pursue not only those connected to the plot but also academics, journalists, Kurdish opposition politicians and other critical voices.
The Turkish president has also threatened repeatedly to respond to popular demand to bring back the death penalty, a move the EU has warned would instantly put an end to Turkey’s longstanding accession bid.
Perhaps it is all just more theater: while Austria has called for a halt to the process, Germany, France and most other EU states support continued engagement. They see Turkey, the world’s largest host of refugees, as a difficult but vital partner for tackling the migration crisis and maintaining the cohesion and stability of the bloc. Recall that over the summer, Angela Merkel's popularity tumbled to 4 year lows as a result of her "open door" immigration policy which led to a series of regional political defeats. As such, being on Ankara's good side is critical for the German chancellor who last weekend announced her intention to seek a fourth term.
Ankara is also an important security partner in the battle against Isis, intercepting foreign jihadist fighters seeking to reach Syria or Iraq from its territory.
Which is why, like this website, "some analysts have questioned whether Mr Erdogan would follow through on his ultimatum to open up the borders, given that the Turkish authorities have imposed travel restrictions on large numbers of Turkish citizens."
Several alleged leaders of the July coup attempt are reportedly on the run, while many other people have been subjected to travel restrictions since the coup, as the government has sacked 125,000 people from the military, police and the public sector.
And while we wait to see the culmination of this escalation tit-for-tat in diplomatic deterioration, Turkey is making headway in restoring its relations with Russia, having recently hinted it may order billions in weapons from Moscow for its anti-missile shield, as well as expanding political, economic and military ties with the ascendent Russian-Chinese axis, which is becoming increasingly more relevant across Eurasia.
But the biggest wildcard may be how the new US administration will respond to this deteriortion on the South-eastern border of Europe, and more importantly, which US Secretary of State will be tasked with fixing an increasingly deteriorating relationship between the two.