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Turkey threatens to open migrant gates if EU halts membership talks

Refugees wait for the arrival of officials at Nizip refugee camp near Gaziantep, Turkey, on April 23, 2016.

UMIT BEKTAS/REUTERS

Turkey threatened Friday to open the migrant floodgates if the European Union halts its membership talks, as criticism grows of Ankara's heavy-handed response to a failed military coup.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's warning – the latest in a series of heated speeches about Europe from top Turkish officials – came a day after EU lawmakers called for a freeze on the talks over the post-coup arrests, dismissals and jailing of tens of thousands of people.

Erdogan's claims that his country has been "betrayed" are a sign of how Turkey's pride has been wounded by the lack of international solidarity Ankara feels has been shown since its political foundations were rocked by the July coup attempt.

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"We are the ones who feed 3-3.5 million refugees in this country. You have betrayed your promises," Erdogan said. "If you go any further, those border gates will be opened," he added.

The European Parliament vote Thursday was a response to Ankara's widespread crackdown on potential political enemies.

Tens of thousands have been detained, and around 120,000 people dismissed or suspended from their jobs over suspected links to the Muslim cleric living in the United States whom Erdogan blames for the coup attempt.

Authorities have also shut down more than 170 media outlets, detained more than 140 journalists and sacked elected Kurdish mayors, replacing them with government-appointed trustees.

NATO has acknowledged that some Turkish personnel at the military alliance have even applied for asylum.

More worrying for the anti-death penalty EU would be if Turkey makes good on a threat to reintroduce capital punishment, which would derail the country's bid to join the bloc entirely.

But apart from symbolizing Europe's concern, Thursday's vote has no practical effect on Turkey's EU accession. Any suspension in talks can only be made by the 28 EU states, not lawmakers.

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Beyond that, member states have little incentive to pour oil on the fire when they desperately need Ankara to manage their refugee crisis. The membership negotiations, which have crawled along at snail's pace for more than a decade, are unlikely to be completed any time soon.

Unable to agree on the best way to manage more than a million migrants who entered Europe last year, mostly through Turkey, EU nations decided to outsource their refugee crisis.

They offered Turkey visa-free travel for its citizens and fast-track membership talks if Ankara stemmed the flow of migrants leaving for Greece and took back thousands who had already crossed into Europe.

The deal also calls for the EU to devote up to €6-billion ($6.4-billion) in aid for Syrian refugees living in Turkey.

During Friday's speech, Erdogan said not enough money was coming through.

"We have been given $550-million by the United Nations. The European Union promised, but the money it has sent so far is around $700-million. But what have we spent? Up to now we have spent $15-billion," he said.

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In Brussels, EU officials confirmed Friday that €677-million have been delivered and a total of €1.2-billion signed into contracts with Turkey. A further billion euros has also been officially "allocated."

More time sensitive is Turkey's quest for visa-waiver status, which would allow Turks to stay for up to 90 days in Europe without a visa. Ankara wants the travel benefit this year, but EU officials said it has still not met seven outstanding criteria.

Most problematic among them is changing the definition of what constitutes a "terrorist act" in Turkey, a condition the Europeans say is required to stop Turkish authorities from rounding up reporters and Erdogan's political opponents.

With bomb attacks a regular occurrence of late in Turkey, the government is reluctant to modify its anti-terror law.

A new progress report is due next month, but at the current speed Turkey is unlikely to meet the conditions this year.

In Germany, whose government would prefer a "privileged partnership" with Turkey as an alternative to full EU membership, spokeswoman Ulrike Demmer said the EU-Turkey migrant deal is a success and "continuing the agreement is in the interest of all those involved."

"Threats from either side don't help," she said. "Where there are problems, we need to talk about them."

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