(REUTERS) – Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan mocked European Union overtures for help with its migration crisis during a long-awaited visit to Brussels on Monday that in the end was partly overshadowed by Russia’s violation of Turkish airspace near Syria.
Erdogan, preparing for a Nov. 1 parliamentary election, boasted of Turkey’s record in taking 2 million refugees from neighboring Syria and Iraq, and contrasted it with the numbers passing through the bloc.
“While we host 2.2 million refugees, Europe as a whole houses less than 250,000 refugees in total,” Erdogan said at a televised meeting with Belgian business leaders.
He had told supporters in France the day before: “What do they say to us? … ‘Oh my, don’t open your doors, don’t let them reach us,” according to Hurriyet newspaper.
The typically bullish remarks will concern European Union officials who are hoping to convince Erdogan to shelter more Syrian refugees in return for aid and also reflect Turkish anger at what Ankara sees as Europe’s failure to help more in Syria’s civil war, either by intervening or taking more refugees.
Despite Erdogan’s tone, however, top European officials due to meet the Turkish leader later on Monday are likely to refrain from any criticism of a man they view with growing suspicion, looking to Turkey’s most popular politician to help solve its worst migration crisis since the break-up of former Yugoslavia.
Erdogan’s trip, officially a state visit to Belgium, has been repeatedly postponed amid tension over Turkey’s stalled bid to join the EU, what the bloc sees as Erdogan’s growing authoritarianism and fears for press freedoms in Turkey.
But in a sign of the underlying ties between NATO member Turkey and the West, NATO’s Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg called Russia’s violation of Turkish airspace as “unacceptable” and called a meeting of NATO ambassadors on Monday.
Turkey, which has the second-largest army in NATO, said the Russian jet entered Turkish airspace south near the Syrian border on Saturday prompting Ankara to scramble two F-16 jets to intercept it and summon Moscow’s ambassador in protest.
“I call on Russia to fully respect NATO airspace and to avoid escalating tensions with the alliance,” Stoltenberg said following a meeting with Turkey’s Foreign Minister Feridun Sinirlioglu at NATO’s headquarters in Brussels.
In meetings set to determine whether Europe can win Erdogan’s backing for a plan to stem the migrant flow from Turkey, the president will hold talks with the presidents of the EU’s three main institutions, the parliament, the executive and the council of EU member governments.
There, diplomats say, the focus will be on how to better manage the flows of migrants fleeing fighting and the brutality of Islamic State militants in Syria and Iraq. That will also be at the center of a major meeting in Luxembourg on Thursday of EU, Western Balkan and East Mediterranean countries.
The EU, which pledged at least 1 billion euros ($1.1 billion) for Syrian refugees in Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and other countries last month, says it wants to help Turkey absorb and integrate more migrants on its own soil and cooperate closely with Greece in preventing mass migrant flows.
Erdogan said Turkey had spent $7.5 billion on sheltering refugees, criticizing the $417 million it had received in foreign aid as “not sustainable.”
Read more from Reuters here.