Merkel Links Turkey’s E.U. Hopes to Stemming Flow of Refugees


Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu of Turkey and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany before  their meeting Sunday in Istanbul.

Bulent Kilic/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

ISTANBUL — Desperately seeking help to contain Europe’s migrant crisis, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany on Sunday explicitly linked accelerating Turkey’s effort to join the European Union to Turkish cooperation in clamping down on the flow of refugees from Turkey to Europe.

Ms. Merkel, who has long opposed Turkey’s admission to the union, said she would support speeding up the process, a concession that underscored the degree of importance European leaders place on Turkey’s cooperation in trying to contain the largest flow of refugees since World War II, as people flee violence and deprivation in the Middle East and Africa.

“No country can shoulder the refugee burden alone,” Ms. Merkel said at a joint news conference with Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu of Turkey in Istanbul on Sunday. “The job has to be shared,” she added.

For weeks, a deal in principle between Europe and Turkey has been discussed; it would include almost three billion euros, or about $3.4 billion, to help Turkey deal with nearly 2.2 million refugees, mostly from Syria, who now live in Turkey. At the news conference, Ms. Merkel and Mr. Davutoglu said that no agreement had been finalized and that the particulars were still being worked out.

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The Scale of the Migrant Crisis, From 160 to Millions

The latest E.U. proposal addresses just a fraction of a human crisis numbering in the millions.

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Mr. Davutoglu continued to press for a “safe zone” in northern Syria, a longstanding priority for Turkey that has been met largely by silence from the international community, because it would require a substantial military operation.

On Sunday, Mr. Davutoglu said: “Our priority is to prevent illegal immigration and reduce the number of people crossing our borders. In that respect, we have had very fruitful discussions with the E.U.”

Mr. Davutoglu said he hoped that Turkish prime ministers could once again attend European Union summit meetings, noting that the current president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, went to a summit meeting in 2004 as prime minister, but then such visits stopped. “We hope Turkey will take a place in the E.U. family photo,” Mr. Davutoglu said.

In the early evening, Ms. Merkel met with Mr. Erdogan, Turkey’s pre-eminent decision maker, and they also discussed the migrant crisis, as well as the European Union accession process and counterterrorism.

In a statement, Mr. Erdogan said he had asked Ms. Merkel for support in accelerating Turkey’s efforts to obtain union membership.

From the start of the Syrian civil war in 2011, Turkey has had an open-door policy for refugees and has spent billions of dollars caring for them. Now that Europe has been drawn into the crisis, Turkish leaders have been quick to point out that Turkey had been “left alone in recent years,” as Mr. Davutoglu put it on Sunday.

In the negotiations, Turkey has made visa-free travel to Europe for its citizens a top priority, and Ms. Merkel said she had agreed to push that issue forward. Turkey is the only country that has been formally accepted for possible membership in the union whose citizens must have visas to travel to Europe.

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Closing the Back Door to Europe

In recent months European nations have worked to block the main route taken by migrants fleeing war and upheaval.

Turkey has long sought to join the European Union — formal negotiations began in 2005 — but the process has stalled in recent years, partly because of European concerns about Turkey’s human rights record and a government crackdown on the news media and freedom of expression.

Now, though, the balance of power has shifted in Turkey’s favor. Europe needs Turkey, which hosts the largest number of refugees in the world, to stem the flow of refugees and migrants who are leaving Turkey’s shores and heading to Greece and then toward other countries on the Continent. So the concerns about rights are largely unspoken by European leaders at the moment.

For example, a European Union report on Turkey, part of the accession process, that was expected to be deeply critical of Ankara’s record on the news media and free speech, has been delayed.

This has raised criticisms from analysts and activists who say that Europe is willing to overlook the increasing authoritarianism of the Turkish government in exchange for cooperation on the migrant problem. Ms. Merkel’s visit took place less than two weeks before a snap election in which Mr. Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party aims to regain its parliamentary majority, which it lost in June elections.

Amnesty International, in a statement issued just before the visit, took aim at another of Turkey’s demands: that it be designated a “safe country of origin,” meaning that Turkish asylum seekers be denied refugee status in Europe.

“It would be utterly callous and disingenuous to describe Turkey as a place of safety,” Andrew Gardner, the group’s Turkey researcher, said in a statement, which also noted the increased violence here recently, as hostilities have resumed between the government and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or P.K.K., a militant group that has long fought for Kurdish rights and autonomy.

The statement continued: “There has been an escalation of violence between the P.K.K. and the army and police, along with a general deterioration of the human rights situation across the board. We have seen waves of arrests of political activists under vague antiterror laws and further attacks on freedom of expression, with a spike in the number of cases of ill treatment of detainees.”

This criticism has been echoed by some European leaders.

Marietje Schaake, a Dutch politician and a member of the European Parliament, said recently in an interview: “I actually think the E.U. is not vocal enough in expressing the deep concerns over the rule of law and restrictions of people’s rights and freedoms in Turkey. Often when I speak with people in Turkey, they get a sense that the E.U. is blind to the deep polarization and tension in society.”

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