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Erdogan warns EU over visa deal after Turkey PM exits

Istanbul (AFP) - President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Friday warned the EU that Turkey would not change an anti-terror law for the sake of a deal on visa-free travel and migrant flows, throwing up a major potential stumbling block a day after his prime minister said he was stepping down.

In a typically combative speech just 24 hours after Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said he would surrender his positions of premier and ruling party chief, Erdogan vowed to put to a referendum his controversial plan of a presidential system in Turkey as "quickly as possible".

Davutoglu had championed the landmark March deal with the European Union under which Turkey would help reduce the flow of migrants to the bloc in exchange for incentives including the promise of visa-free travel for Turks to the passport-free Schengen Area.

The European Commission this week recommended that Turks enjoy visa-free travel but Turkey must complete five more benchmarks by the end of next month to complete the EU's list of 72 criteria.

Crucial among these are changes to anti-terror law as well as protection of personal data. But Erdogan signalled Ankara had no intention of changing its anti-terror legislation to placate Brussels.

"The EU says: you will change the anti-terror law for visas," Erdogan said in a televised speech in Istanbul.

"Pardon me but we are going our way and you can go yours."

Amanda Paul, senior policy analyst for the independent thinktank European Policy Centre told AFP there "is a huge risk, very big risk now, that the migration deal will collapse" after Erdogan’s warning.

"If Turkey doesn't change the anti-terror legislation in line with what's being demanded by the EU, it's difficult to see how the EU can justifiably go ahead with the visa liberalisation," she added.

- 'EU watching closely' -

The departure of Davutoglu, who had cut the migrant deal after months of tough negotiation with EU leaders including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, has already sent ripples of concern through European capitals.

Erdogan kept his distance from the talks and an anonymous online blog that surfaced earlier in the week claimed he had been furious at being sidelined over the accord and not being fully informed.

Merkel expects Turkey to stick to the deal having "worked very well until now" with Davutoglu, German government spokesman Georg Streiter told reporters in Berlin.

"The EU and Germany will continue to fulfil all their obligations under the agreement and we expect this from the Turkish side as well," he added.

EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said Brussels was closely following the developments. "We will obviously discuss this, first of all, with the Turkish authorities and define together how to move forward," she said on a visit to Kosovo.

Erdogan has previously warned Brussels that Ankara would stop fulfilling its side of the migrant deal -- which has seen the numbers making dangerous crossings across the Aegean fall sharply -- if promises like visa-free travel were not kept.

Turkey's EU Affairs Minister Volkan Bozkir said earlier that Turkey did not "have the luxury" to change its anti-terror laws for the sake of the visa deal while the government was fighting the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).

In another swipe at Brussels, Erdogan said: "Why aren't you changing your mindset when you allowed terrorists who put up tents close to the EU Parliament?" in apparent reference to tents set up by Kurdish activists near the EU Council building in Brussels in March.

- 'Referendum as soon as possible' -

Tensions had already been surging between Erdogan and the West over accusations the president was imposing a creeping authoritarianism over the country he has ruled as premier from 2003 and as president from 2014.

After the departure of Davutoglu, Erdogan is determined to realise his dream of creating a presidential system in Turkey that would cement his status as number one, a plan for which the outgoing premier had only shown lukewarm enthusiasm.

Erdogan needs parliament to approve the holding of a referendum that could agree the constitutional changes. But the AKP is short of the three-fifths majority needed, raising the prospect of early elections.

Without mentioning early elections, he said in the Istanbul speech that the idea would be put to a referendum "as soon as possible".

Despite being supposed to remain politically neutral as president, Erdogan defended his involvement in party politics which led to the departure of Davutoglu.

"Some are disturbed by me monitoring closely the developments related to the party... What can be more natural than this?" said the president.