President Erdogan: I will open gates for migrants to enter Europe if EU blocks membership talks

The office of German Chancellor Angela Merkel says such 'threats' - from either side - are 'not helpful'

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The Independent Online

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has warned Turkey could open its border for refugees to stream into Europe after EU MEPs voted for a temporary halt to membership talks.

Speaking at a congress on womens' justice in Istanbul, the president warned:  "If you go any further, these border gates will be opened. Neither me nor my people will be affected by these dry threats. It wouldn't matter if all of you approved the vote".

He said the EU had "wailed" for help controlling the flow of refugees and migrants in 2015 and the bloc worried what would happen if Turkey opened its borders. Mr Erdogan made specific reference to Turkey's main border crossing with EU member Bulgaria.

MEPs voted 479 in favour of halting long-term membership talks with Ankara at a plenary session in Strasbourg on Thursday amid concerns about the brutal crackdown on political dissidents since a failed coup in July.

The talks were part of a wide-ranging deal agreed with Mr Erdogan's government which meant Turkey would shelter the thousands of refugees fleeing violence in Iraq and Syria in exchange for aid, membership talks and visa-free travel for its citizens.

The deal – struck in March – means that for every refugee arriving in Europe who is repatriated back to Turkey, EU countries will resettle another from Turkish refugee camps in a "one in, one out" system.

The accord has largely been successful in reducing numbers crossing the Aegean Sea between Turkey and Greece. According to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), just over 171,000 have crossed to Greece so far this year, much lower than the comparable figure for 2015 of almost 740,000.

However while the number of refugees attempting boat journeys across the Aegean Sea has slowed to a trickle, thousands have continued to cross the Mediterranean from Libya.

The treacherous passage has claimed the vast majority of more than 4,600 lives lost so far this year in sea journeys to Europe, making 2016 the deadliest year on record.

The controversial agreement was designed to ease the pressure on European political leaders after they began to be seen as powerless to control their own borders. 

In Germany, where over one million people arrived in the country in 2015 alone, anti-immigration party Alternative for Germany (AfD) have threatened Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrat Union party in several key regional elections and could be poised to make big gains in the federal elections next year.

In response to Mr Erdogan's remarks, Ms Merkel's spokeswoman Ulrike Demmer said the deal was in the interests “of all parties” and that “threats on either side are not helpful”

France also criticised Mr Erdogan for threatening Europe. “We believe one-upmanship and controversies are counterproductive,” French foreign affairs ministry spokesman Alexandre Giorgini said.

EU Commission spokesman Margaritis Schinas said it would not get involved in "statements about hypothetical scenarios" and was still committed to implementing the agreement.

However, the European Parliament's rapporteur on Turkey, Kati Piri, tweeted that "linking (the) deal on migration with (the) EU accession talks was wrong from the beginning."

Mr Erdogan said that while Turkey itself was looking after three million refugees – mainly 2.7 million Syrians from the civil war – but he accused the EU of having "never acted honourably" in their dealings with Turkey.

He has also accused Brussels of failing to fulfil a pledge to deliver some €6bn (£5.2bn) in aid for refugees.

“We have been given $550m (£442m) by the United Nations," he said. "The European Union promised, but the money it has sent so far is around $700m. But what have we spent? Up to now we have spent $15bn.” 

The EU says the money is to be transferred gradually for individual projects – not as a single payment.

The negotiations for Turkey's potential accession to the EU have been underway since 2005, but European leaders have warned that Ankara is unlikely to be permitted to join if Mr Erdogan restores the death penalty following the attempted coup earlier this year. Mr Erdogan says he supports the move, but it would need parliamentary approval.

So far around 70,000 people have been arrested and thousands more have been sacked from their jobs in schools, the judiciary and the police  following the failed coup, during which soldiers took over the state broadcaster and blockaded Istanbul's main airport. 

Mr Erdogan accused supporters of his former ally, Fethullah Gulen, of organising the coup against him, and arrested several members of his family – though the Pennsylvania-based cleric has denied any involvement.

The EU parliamentary vote is non-binding and earlier this month, all EU foreign ministers – with the exception of Austria – said they were in favour of continuing the accession talks.

Germany's Foreign Ministry said on Friday, that it was "important" that the two sides "keep talking".

“It is important that we do not freeze the accession negotiations because that would only further damage the relationship between Turkey and Europe, and that would not be in the interest of Turkey or of Europe,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Sawsan Chebli said.

However, Austria's Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz, a hardliner on Turkey, said Europe should strengthen its own borders after Erdogan's comments, and “must not give in to blackmail”.

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