ISTANBUL — Two top European Union officials urged Turkey on Thursday to amend its tough anti-terrorism laws so the EU can lift its visa restrictions — a key incentive in a deal to stop migrants crossing the Aegean Sea. Turkey’s prime minister said that isn’t an option.
European Parliament President Martin Schulz and EU Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos held separate talks with Turkish officials after they threatened to suspend a March migrant deal if the visa restrictions weren’t lifted for Turkish nationals.
The deal has drastically reduced the number of migrants and refugees from crossing to Greece and onward to wealthier EU countries, such as Germany, France and Sweden.
“We are not moving forward because the counterterrorism law is not being reformed,” Schulz told a joint media conference with Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim. “We agree on many things, but we do differ on certain issues. Visa-free travel can happen after … the completion of all the criteria, including the anti-terror law.”
Yildirim retorted: “Anti-terror law is the issue that we cannot agree on.”
“We as Turkey have made our stance clear: there will be absolutely no wavering, no stepping back regarding the fight against terrorism,” Yildirim said. “Anti-terror is not just about the safety of the Turkish people but also about Europe’s security.”
Plans to loosen visa restrictions have run into trouble over Turkey’s refusal to amend its anti-terror laws at a time when it is fighting heightened threats from Kurdish rebels and the Islamic State group. The EU wants Turkey to narrow its definition of terrorism.
Turkey has also launched a crackdown after a failed military coup on July 15, rooting out thousands of alleged supporters of U.S.-based Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen. The government blames Gulen for the uprising and considers him and his followers to be terrorists. Gulen denies any involvement.
Avramopoulos said at a separate news conference that “since March, Turkey has made considerable progress.”
“Let me clear on a very important issue. The European Union remains committed to keep the momentum and dialogue on visa liberalization. A lot has been achieved during the last months, and we want to further build on these achievements,” Avramopoulos said.
Turkey’s minister for EU affairs, Omer Celik, told the joint news conference that Turkey is committed to the framework of the March 18 agreement.
“What we expect is that our allies and friends do what they promised to do,” he said.
The EU officials were trying to restore dialogue amid the fallout from the failed coup that has fueled diplomatic tensions.
Turkey has complained of a lack of support from the West and denounced the criticism of the scope of its crackdown — with tens of thousands detained or fired from their jobs — following the coup attempt.
“I’m here to reiterate and express again the European Union’s support for President Erdogan and the government and to condemn the acts of violence,” Avramopoulos said. “The European Union stands and continues to stand with Turkey, in solidarity with its people and its democratically elected institutions.”
AP writers Cinar Kiper and Zeynep Bilginsoy contributed to this report.
This story has been corrected to show that Martin Schulz is European Parliament president, not EU president.