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Opinion

Opinion: Ankara and Brussels on collision course over refugees

To outsiders, it looks as if the refugee deal between the EU and Turkey is on the verge of collapse. But neither side can afford for that to happen, says DW’s Christoph Hasselbach.

No one wants to give in. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is refusing to change his country's controversial anti-terror laws. If he stands firm, the EU won't lift visa requirements for Turkish citizens, as it had promised to do this summer. Visa-free travel is one of Turkey's main goals; it's something Erdogan has long fought for. If that's all it was about, the Europeans could sit back and let the Turks wait until every single one of their conditions were fulfilled.

But visa-free travel is part of the refugee deal negotiated with the EU by former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, who has since been forced to resign. And Ankara now once again seems ready to play the refugee card in the most cynical of ways. "If you make the wrong decision, we'll send the refugees," one of Erdogan's advisers told European parliamentarians via Twitter.

Erdogan needs visa-free travel

The message from the EU Commission in Brussels and the European parliament in Strasbourg is: We won't let ourselves be blackmailed. And that seems to be a sentiment shared across the party spectrum.

Hasselbach Christoph

DW's Christoph Hasselbach

On Thursday, EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker was very clear: "It is very important to us that these conditions are fulfilled. Otherwise, it will not happen." This is the same Juncker who, at the end of October, warned that it was not the time to start reminding the Turkish government of its human rights violations, "whether we like it, or not."

Then, as now, the Europeans are dependent on Turkey's help in addressing the refugee crisis. Until now, Ankara has kept up its end of the bargain. Should Erdogan actually revoke the deal and "send the refugees," the EU would be right back where it was at the start of the year: Staring in the face of a gigantic, unresolved problem.

But Erdogan is also dependent on the Europeans. He doesn't just need them economically, politically and diplomatically. The prospect of visa-free travel is much more of a domestic issue. If he can't give it to the Turkish people this summer, his popularity will suffer greatly. And if he does get it, he will be a hero at home. That's why both sides have a strong interest in ensuring the deal continues.

Most important lesson: Rely on yourself

In the end, the argument about the anti-terror law has to do with how narrowly you define the term "terrorism." No one in Europe is against Turkey cracking down on terrorists. What Europeans don't like to see is the law being abused to silence disloyal politicians and troublesome journalists. We are not talking about irreconcilable differences. It's likely that Erdogan is simply trying to drive up the price of cooperation, as he did on the issue of financial support. But even if both sides hopefully end up with an agreement, it would be wise for the Europeans to build in an "emergency brake" against massive abuse of visa-free travel.

The EU still has to draw the most important consequence from its argument with Ankara: Even if the deal with Turkey has led to a strong decline in the number of refugees reaching Europe, the EU must not solely rely on other countries to act as bouncers at the door. It should take the necessary action to protect its own external borders.

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