By Robin Emmott
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan urged the European Union on Monday to consider safe havens and no-fly zones in Syria as a way to resolve the bloc’s migrant crisis but signalled a readiness to discuss Europe’s calls for more camps in Turkey.
In a historic trip that was overshadowed by Russia’s incursions into Turkey’s airspace near Syria, Erdogan sought to shift the focus onto what he sees as Europe’s failure to take in more refugees or intervene in the Syrian civil war.
“The root cause of the refugee crisis today is the war in Syria,” Erdogan told reporters following a series of meetings in Brussels with top EU officials. He called on the EU to do more to train rebels, set up a protected zone inside northern Syria and to enforce a no-fly zone to end bombing of civilians.
While political divisions in Europe and Russia’s air support for President Bashar al-Assad in Syria mean the initiatives have little chance of becoming a reality, Erdogan was at pains to stress it was Europe, not Turkey, that needed to do more.
“We have a border with Syria … with Iraq. So we are the country that is under threat here,” he said in remarks alongside European Council President Donald Tusk in a reference to the Islamic State militants in Syria and Iraq.
NATO-ally Turkey has had strained relations with Brussels over its stalled EU membership bid, but the situation in Syria is pushing both sides to engage in realpolitik.
Facing its worst migrant crisis since the break-up of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, Europe is dropping its criticism of what it sees as Erdogan’s increasing authoritarianism and looking to Turkey to absorb more refugees from Syria and Iraq.
The EU, which pledged at least 1 billion euros ($1.1 billion) for Syrian refugees in Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and other countries last month, is willing to give Ankara funds so they can apply for asylum in camps in Turkey.
Erdogan, preparing for a Nov. 1 parliamentary election, was scathing of Europe’s limited reception of refugees during two rallies in Strasbourg and in Brussels before he met European officials, telling supporters: “What do they say to us? … ‘Oh my, don’t open your doors, don’t let them reach us,” according to Hurriyet newspaper.
Erdogan, later standing by Tusk, also made a pointed reference to the fact that Turkey had taken in more than 2 million Syrians and Iraqis, compared to only several hundred thousand by Europe, while Ankara had spent $17.8 billion on hosting migrants, receiving just $417 million in aid.
However, Erdogan did agree for the first time to discuss the issue of more migrant camps, according to EU diplomats briefed on the meeting who described it as a breakthrough.
That should mean setting up a high-level working group to discuss migration in return for speeding up talks on visa-free travel for Turks in Europe.
“Strengthened cooperation will benefit both sides,” said Tusk, who said both Turkey and Europe needed tighter border control in a veiled reference to the migrants fleeing through Turkey to Greece by sea.
Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu had earlier dismissed the EU funding idea, saying that Turkey was not prepared to be a “concentration camp” for refugees.
Talks will continue at a major meeting in Luxembourg on Thursday of EU, Western Balkan and East Mediterranean countries.