Turkey has threatened to stop readmitting refugees who cross over into the European Union illegally unless the bloc liberalizes its visa regulations for Turkish nationals.
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan made the threat at a conference in Istanbul on Tuesday, a day after meeting with the German chancellor, Angela Merkel.
Merkel reiterated the European position on Monday, which is that Turkey needs to reform its sweeping anti-terror laws before travel restrictions can be lifted. Under current legislation, academics and journalists can be prosecuted for “propagandizing” terrorism.
Erdoğan has refused, citing Turkey’s ongoing counterterrorism efforts against Islamists and Kurdish separatists.
Merkel also expressed “deep concern” on Monday about Turkey’s selectively stripping of immunity from a fourth of its lawmakers, precisely those who are sympathetic to the Kurdish cause.
Quid pro quo
Citizens of some sixty countries outside Europe do not need a visa to travel to the EU.
Normally, the exemption requires countries to meet a raft of criteria, ranging from human rights to biometric passports.
In March, European governments agreed to loosen the requirements for Turkey if the country would help block mass immigration across the Aegean Sea.
Turkey agreed to take back migrants who reach Greek shores. For every returned migrant, the EU agreed to accept a Syrian war refugee.
The deal helped slow the flow of people, which was reaching record highs, to a trickle.
But it also gave Turkey leverage, which the power-obsessed Erdoğan clearly has no qualms about exploiting.
His threat comes at a particularly sensitive time for Europe. The prospect that Turkey could one day join the EU has become an issue in the British referendum campaign about whether to stay in the union or not. Those who favor an exit claim that the United Kingdom could not block a Turkish accession.
They’re wrong, but the spectacle of Erdoğan holding Europe hostage cannot inspire much confidence in the continent’s ability to resist Turkish demands.