European Union plans to entice Turkey into helping ease the bloc’s refugee crisis with $3.41 billion in aid and re-energized talks on membership were seemingly rebuffed by Ankara on Friday, with the country’s ruling party dismissing the proposal as political bribery.
European leaders meeting in Brussels announced early Friday that an action plan had been agreed on with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to cooperate on improving the lives of 2 million Syrian refugees in Turkey and encouraging them to stay put. They were also said to have agreed to better coordinate border controls to slow the influx of people fleeing conflict in the Middle East and heading to Europe via Turkey. In return, EU members would offer aid and an accelerated path for Turkey’s citizens to travel visa-free through the bloc while encouraging the country’s accession ambitions.
But speaking later, Erdogan appeared to pour cold water on the idea and accused the EU of being insincere about Turkey's membership.
Erdogan accused Europe of waking up too late to the scale of Syria's refugee crisis, suggesting that it was only when pictures of 3-year-old Alan Shenu (also reported as Aylan Kurdi), whose body washed up on a beach near the Turkish resort of Bodrum last month, started circulating that EU members started to act.
"When that toddler Alan washed up on the Bodrum shores, they started using that photo on the front of their magazines and started questioning themselves," Erdogan said.
"OK, but how long have we been shouting and calling? In Turkey now there are 2.2 million Syrians alone. There are 300,000 Iraqis," he said. "We are far ahead of most EU countries, but unfortunately, they are not sincere."
He also took a swing at German Chancellor Angela Merkel, mocking those who suggested she should be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for opening Germany to so many refugees this year. Its intake far exceeds that of other EU members, with up to 800,000 refugees expected to enter the country through 2015.
"We have 2.5 million refugees. No one cares," Erdogan said. Meanwhile his party’s spokesman Omer Celik lashed out at the EU for making Turkey’s accession bid a matter of "political bribery."
Speaking in Istanbul, Celik added that nothing had been concluded with the EU over the handling of migrant and refugee flows but that talks were continuing.
The process of becoming an EU member is divided into chapters, and Turkey's bid has stalled in recent years over sharp differences on issues such as rule of law and human rights.
But after a decade of membership talks in which the EU has had the upper hand, Turkey is now in a stronger bargaining condition, given how it is increasingly being seen as key to alleviating what has been cast as Europe’s refugee crisis.
But sticking points remain in Turkey’s accession bid. EU leaders are still concerned about moves by Erdogan toward the Kurdish minority, the media and the justice system.
French President François Hollande said he "insisted that if there is a liberalization of visas with Turkey ... it should be on extremely specific, controlled terms."
Merkel, who is going to Turkey on Sunday, said the plan would mean that "on the one hand, Turkey enters into commitments with regard to the handling of refugees within its own country and, on the other hand, that we are ready to share the burden with Turkey."
"We still must clarify the timelines, what should happen, when, how reliable our promises of support are, how reliable Turkey's promises of regulation are," she said early Friday.
EU President Donald Tusk expressed "cautious optimism" about securing an agreement with Turkey on what he called "a demanding and difficult issue." The deal "makes sense only if it effectively contains the flow of refugees," he told reporters after the summit.
The plan would see Turkey improve its asylum and documentation procedures and beef up border and coast guard numbers. The idea is to help stop people entering Turkey in search of work there or in the EU and then prevent both them and refugees in the country from moving on to Europe.
Erdogan last week demanded EU support to establish a no-fly zone and safe area in northern Syria, saying it was the only way to stop people leaving. While the EU believes the U.N. Security Council is the forum for taking that process forward, it has assured Turkey that the bloc would provide humanitarian support were such a safe haven to be established.
Al Jazeera and wire services