Angela Merkel has given her backing to a multi-billion euro EU action plan aimed at encouraging Turkey to cooperate on tighter border controls in an effort to drastically curb the number of refugees and migrants entering the EU.
A late-night summit of EU leaders in Brussels agreed to give its political support to the draft aid deal, including offering Ankara up to €3bn (£2.2bn) to improve the care of refugees, visa-free travel to Europe for Turks from 2016, the resumption of frozen negotiations on Turkey’s EU membership bid, along with other sweeteners in what appeared to be a desperate attempt to gain Turkish cooperation.
While EU officials were adamant no concrete promises had been made to the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, beyond an offer of about €500m in aid from the EU’s budget, the German chancellor was insistent that a much larger sum had been considered and stressed it was only realistic to think in terms of much larger amounts due to the scale of the crisis.
“In future we have to be stronger in burden sharing if we consider the fact that they [Turkey] have been virtually left alone in the past,” she said, saying that the question of a much larger figure of €3bn had “played a role” during summit negotiations.
“If we say Turkey has indeed spent €7bn over the past few years, then in turn, that would mean the EU should also shoulder a comparable sum,” she said at the close of the talks.
Merkel has already talked openly of the need to provide extensive funds not just to care for refugees and provide humanitarian aid, but to help to secure borders and to fight people smuggling rings.
Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European commission, said that the aim of the proposed pact was to keep more than 2 million Syrian refugees in Turkey and prevent them attempting to get to Europe.
But amid fears that the deal could yet collapse, Ankara insisted it would not accept any watered-down measures, focussing its attention in particular on the details over freedom of travel for Turkish citizens.
Speaking on Turkish television on Thursday, the prime minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, said that Turkey would not make any promises without concrete changes to the EU visa policy.
“We will absolutely not sign any agreements if no steps are taken regarding Schengen and if Turkish citizens are not granted the right to travel to Europe without a visa,” he told broadcaster TGRT Haber. “We have been saying this since before the Syria crisis began.”
Merkel will travel to Istanbul on Sunday for talks with Erdoğan and Davutoğlu, after signalling for weeks that she is ready to reach out to Turkey, recognising the key role it has to play in any attempt to curb the thousands of refugees and migrants that are arriving in Germany on a daily basis.
Officials in Berlin say her visit is necessary to improve communication at a time when the balance of power in relations between the EU and Turkey has shifted considerably in Ankara’s favour, largely due to the fact that Turkey is currently the main source of the 700,000 people who have entered the EU this year.
But Merkel has come under intense fire at home for visiting a leader who is becoming increasingly authoritarian, and just two weeks ahead of a crucial general election which due to his policy of escalation towards the Kurds has effectively turned into a referendum on him. It also comes just a week after theworst terror attack in the country’s modern history during a peace rally in Ankara, which killed over 100 people and injured hundreds more.
Suspicion is rife that any concessions Merkel might make with Erdoğan he will be able to clock up as his own, pre-election achievements.
“Erdoğan … can now say I have everyone in my pocket, everyone’s dancing to my tune and when Mrs Merkel drives up to his palace … then I believe it’s an undeserved election gift for his AKP,” Lale Akgün , a member of the Social Democrats (SPD), who was born in Istanbul, told German broadcaster DLF.
The leading Green MP Claudia Roth accused Merkel of stepping on a “minefield” by appearing to support Erdoğan’s election campaign. Even though he is not in the running, and as president is supposed to be independent, he has greatly intervened in the race. But government officials say the talks are vital to finding a solution to the refugee situation.
“We are very critical of Mr Erdoğan. In many respects he’s certainly not our interlocutor of choice, as you might imagine, but without him it won’t be possible to find a solution,” Armin Laschet, a leading member of Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU), told Spiegel. “The terror attack makes everything even more complicated,” he said, adding that the 2 million people living in refugee camps in Turkey needed to be given the sense of a future, otherwise they might make their way to Europe. “To give them a perspective will only be possible with Mr Erdoğan which is why we need to keep talking to him,” he said.
In recent days Merkel has repeatedly referred to Turkey’s strategic and pivotal role in the current situation, saying Germany – which it is estimated can expect up to 1.5 million refugees this year – ignores Turkey at its peril. She has signalled her readiness to negotiate with Turkey over a relaxation of visa rules, as well as giving it a “safe country” status, in return for cooperation over the refugee question. The weakness of Turkey’s border with Greece will also be a strong talking point, Merkel has said.
But safe country status is one of the more controversial issues, human rights organisations have warned, as it would effectively bar any Turks or Kurds from applying for asylum in Germany at a time when it is coming under increasing attack for its deteriorating human rights record. It would also trap refugees in Turkey, a country without a stringent refugee policy, in exchange for the EU effectively turning a blind eye to the country’s increasingly dismal human rights record.
“The EU must be dreaming. How could Turkey be considered a ‘safe country’,” Cengiz Aktar, professor for EU relations at Istanbul’s Bahçeşehir University told the Guardian. “Besides all the other human rights issues at the moment, Turkey does not even have a full-fledged refugee policy. They still apply geographical limitations and don’t consider Syrians to be refugees in Turkey, but ‘guests’. This is why so many Syrians want to leave in the first place,” he said.
Emma Sinclair-Webb, a senior Turkey researcher for Human Rights Watch, said that any EU move to declare Turkey a safe country would only play into the hands of its increasingly authoritarian president. She said Merkel should not avoid the human rights question when she met him.
“In her principled decision to host so many refugees in Germany, Angela Merkelhas taken a courageous stand which grants her the moral authority to voice concerns over what is happening in Turkey at the moment, the crackdown on media freedom, the dismantling of the justice system and the general trajectory of democracy in the country,” she said.
Neither can the domestic importance of the visit for Merkel be underestimated. At home she has seen her popularity ratings slumpover the refugee crisis, particularly her open door policy. And while she has insisted that poll results will not alter her politics, she is coming under increasing pressure from ordinary Germans and her own conservative alliance to shape a plan that will have the effect of reducing the number of newcomers to Germany.
It also plays to the estimated 3 million people of Turkish origin living in Germany. Following the Ankara attack, Gökay Sofuoglu, chairman of the Turkish community in Germany, warned that the conflict between Turks and Kurds was “in danger of spilling onto the streets” of Germany, as tensions between the two communities rose.
Cem Özdemir, a leader of the Greens whose parents are Turkish, condemned Merkel’s posturing to Ankara, urging her to postpone her visit at least until after the elections. “We should not be doing anything that could in any way be understood as something that strengthens Erdoğan’s position,” he recently told journalists. “Any agreement would be a signal that we consider Erdoğan to be a normal interlocutor. But that can’t be the case with a head of state who accepts the deaths of his citizens, police and soldiers.”
But there is also growing acceptance in Germany that this is a time for realpolitik even if it leads to intense political disagreements in Berlin.
“It is good that Merkel … is looking for a pragmatic solution to a problem that the decision makers in the European Union have not got under control, but which could become an explosive element in the attempts to create a peaceful coexistence with asylum seekers,” wrote the Berlin daily Der Tagesspiegel in an editorial.