ANKARA/BERLIN (Reuters) - Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan ratcheted up the pressure on Europe over a landmark migrants deal on Thursday, accusing the bloc of setting new hurdles for visa-free travel and threatening Ankara may go its own way if they failed to agree.
In Berlin, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker also dug in his heels, saying the agreement would collapse unless Ankara fulfilled its commitments, including making agreed changes to its anti-terror law.
The stand-off has cast doubts on the future of the agreement, designed to give Turks visa-free travel to Europe in return for stemming the flow of illegal migrants. Brussels is desperate for it to succeed, but insists Turkey meets 72 criteria, including narrowing its legal definition of terrorism.
The EU and rights groups have accused Turkey of using its broad anti-terrorism laws to stifle dissent while Ankara says it needs the laws to battle Kurdish militants at home and Islamic State in neighboring Iraq and Syria.
“We had finished the issue of visa free travel with EU, we had inked the deal, then they came up with these 72 criteria and included the counter-terror laws in it,” Erdogan said.
Telling Turkey to soften its counter-terrorism laws was tantamount to asking it to give up its struggle against terrorism, he said in a speech.
“Either we will improve our relations with the EU, or we will set a new path for ourselves. We prefer to build the new Turkey with our EU friends, but now we will wait for the decision of our EU friends.”
But a combative Juncker showed no signs of giving ground.
“We put great value in the conditions being met. Otherwise this deal, the agreement between the EU and Turkey, won’t happen. If Mr Erdogan decides to deny Turks the right to free travel to Europe, then he must explain this to the Turkish people. It will not be my problem, it will be his problem.”
‘IN TURKEY‘S COURT’
Other European politicians also piled pressure on Ankara, with German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier saying it was up to Turkey to fulfill the criteria if it wants visa-free travel.
“The ball is in Turkey’s court,” Steinmeier said, adding Turkey must change anti-terrorism statutes that could lead to a crackdown on journalists. “If Turkey fulfils its commitments, then I would be in favor of us fulfilling our commitments and pressing ahead with visa liberalization.”
Turkey’s record on press freedom is a growing concern in Europe. Prosecutors have opened more than 1,800 cases against people for insulting Erdogan since he became president in 2014, including journalists, cartoonists and teenagers.
A German satirist is facing prosecution after mocking him on German TV.
Still, European Commission spokesman Margaritis Schinas said the deal was not “dead”, and that Brussels was working towards granting Turkey visa-free travel.
Brussels said on Thursday it would assign 1 billion euros in aid for refugees living in Turkey by the end of July, speeding up the disbursement of funds promised along with visa liberalization.
Turkey has complained the EU is too slow spending the money.
Ankara’s minister for EU affairs said Turkey believed it had fulfilled all the criteria, adding that it was unacceptable if the deal was postponed unfairly.
“We want the process to continue but it would be unacceptable for Turkey if it is postponed in an unfair fashion,” Volkan Bozkir told a news conference in Strasbourg broadcast live on Turkish television.
Ankara has repeatedly said that without visa liberalization, there will be no migrant deal.
Addditional reporting by Gabriela Baczynska in Brussels; Writing by Daren Butler and Dasha Afanasieva; Editing by David Dolan and Dominic Evans