Turkey pledges to uphold EU migration deal, demands visa-free travel

Turkey will stick to a refugee deal struck with the European Union, but will not take new steps to control migration flows unless the bloc lifts visa requirements for Turkish visitors, Europe minister Omer Celik said Saturday.

His comments came after talks with EU foreign ministers in Bratislava aimed at healing a rift between Brussels and Ankara, following weeks of tit-for-tat in the aftermath of Turkey's thwarted July 15 coup.

The EU was quick to condemn the attempted military takeover, but has voiced strong concern about a subsequent crackdown and purge across the military and civil service that has led to thousands of detentions.

Turkey is a long-running EU membership candidate and plays a key role in stemming migration flows into Europe, under a deal struck in March between Ankara and Brussels.

But Turkish officials have been warning that the migration deal is at stake if the EU does not lift visa restrictions for Turkish visitors to the bloc - a move Brussels had pledged to undertake once Ankara completes a series of benchmarks.

Celik backed away from that threat Saturday.

"The [migration] scheme, we are implementing it, yes, and we will continue to implement it out of humanitarian reasons," he said.

He warned, however, that it would probably "not be enough faced with the likelihood of further crises coming our way," while adding that without visa liberalization, "Turkey will not be very positive about taking new steps to set up new mechanisms."

The visa timetable has been slipping, with Turkey unwilling to meet an EU demand that it narrow its definition of terrorism. Even before the coup there were concerns that Ankara was using anti-terrorism laws to crack down on political opponents and the media.

Given the current terrorist threat in Turkey, Celik said it is "not rational at all to expect Turkey to make any change in the Turkish anti-terror law."

He did, however, suggest that the country could commit to taking future steps on the issue with the Council of Europe, the continent's top human rights watchdog.

Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn said a loose visa liberalization timetable had been agreed, but said it would take time.

The meeting in the Slovak capital was the first between the EU's top diplomats and a Turkish counterpart since July 15. Ankara has criticized the bloc for a perceived lack of support following the coup.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said the EU should take a "self-critical" look at whether it had failed to fully convey its empathy and solidarity over the events of July 15.

"We need to talk less about each other and more with each other," added EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, who is due to visit Ankara next Friday. "There is no taboo in our dialogue," she added.

Turkey has played a significant role in regional issues such as the war in neighbouring Syria, recently launching a cross-border ground offensive for the first time.

The Syrian conflict has contributed hundreds of thousands of people to the migration flows towards Europe.

Last update: Sat, 03/09/2016 - 15:54

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