European fears over refugees foreshadow Merkel’s visit to Turkey

German Chancellor Angela Merkel is to visit Turkey January 24.
Sunday 19/01/2020
Hints of blackmail. German Chancellor Angela Merkel (L) meets with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in New York, last September.     (DPA)
Hints of blackmail. German Chancellor Angela Merkel (L) meets with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in New York, last September. (DPA)

ISTANBUL- Europe’s “fear” of a new wave of refugees from the Middle East and North Africa will take centre stage during a visit by German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Turkey January 24, observers said.

Merkel is to meet with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan only days after the two leaders are to attend the January 19 conference in Berlin on the Libyan conflict.

Following the arrival of hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees in Europe in 2015, Turkey and the European Union signed an agreement in 2016 that asked Turkey to reduce the number of people crossing over from its territory to the nearby islands of EU member Greece. In return, the European Union promised $6.7 billion in financial aid to Turkey for looking after Syrian refugees there.

Merkel, head of the European Union’s biggest economy, was a driving force behind the deal. One of the issues likely to be discussed between her and Erdogan in Istanbul is to work out how the future for the refugee agreement would look after the financial support arrangement ran out last year.

Turkey has taken in 3.6 million Syrians and is concerned that fighting in the neighbouring Syrian province of Idlib could send thousands more over the border. The United Nations said around 350,000 people have fled fighting in Idlib and are seeking shelter near the Turkish border.

The visit would be Merkel’s first to Turkey since October 2018 when she attended a summit with Erdogan and the leaders of France and Russia on the Syrian conflict. Merkel, Erdogan, French President Emmanuel Macron and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson met for talks on Syria on the sidelines of a NATO summit in December. Erdogan said the second summit of that quartet has been scheduled for February in Istanbul.

Erdogan warned several times that Turkey could “open the gates” and send refugees to Europe if the European Union does not do more to help Ankara and contain the Syrian crisis.

Among other things, Turkey is demanding EU support for its plan to resettle up to 2 million Syrians in a “safe zone” planned in northern Syria captured by the Turkish Army during a military intervention last October. European leaders have shown little enthusiasm for the project, which could cost more than $22 billion, Turkish media reports said.

Kristian Brakel, Turkey representative of the Heinrich Boll Foundation, which is associated with the German Green party, said European politicians were in a panic about Erdogan’s threats even though the Turkish leader was unlikely to follow through with them. Sending large numbers of refugees to Europe would break the 2016 refugee agreement, Brakel said.

“I don’t believe the Turkish side is greatly interested in breaking the deal,” Brakel said of Erdogan’s remarks about opening the gates, “but what I hear from politicians of all kinds of parties in Berlin is that the fear is there. ‘Oh my God, he is blackmailing us,’ is what they are saying.”

Brakel said Turkey was keen to keep the deal alive because the agreement was one of the few “anchors” tying Turkey to Europe after years of unsuccessful EU membership talks and a cooling of relations. The agreement provided Turkey “with a certain potential to issue threats” to Europe, he added. “They want to be able to say to the Europeans: ‘Look, you have to feel a little responsible for Syria as well,’” he said.

Turkey’s foray into the Libyan conflict could afford Ankara additional leverage over Europe because years of civil war have made Libya a major staging post for refugees trying to reach the European Union’s southernmost parts. EU concern about the refugee situation, which has led to a dispute between EU members about which countries should accept the migrants, was the main motive for Merkel’s initiative to organise the Berlin summit on Libya.

Erdogan has said he was sending Turkish troops to Libya to support the Tripoli-based government of Fayez al-Sarraj against an attack by Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army.

Despite being on opposing sides in the conflict, Erdogan teamed with Russian President Vladimir Putin in calling for a ceasefire. Merkel also visited Putin for talks about Libya.

“I think it’s an advantage for the Turks that they now play a significant role in efforts to solve the Libyan conflict, because that is in the interest of most EU countries as well,” Brakel said.

The Istanbul visit provides Merkel with a chance to follow up the Libyan issue with Erdogan shortly after the Berlin summit.

“Berlin is an opportunity to restart the political process and build on the pause in fighting,” said a Western diplomat quoted by Reuters.

A 6-page draft communique seen by Reuters calls for “credible, verifiable, sequenced and reciprocal steps” starting with a truce to be monitored by technical committees.

That could involve beefing up the existing UN mission in Libya or deploying troops from Russia, Turkey or other countries, the diplomats said. The draft vaguely mentioned long-delayed plans for elections and a national government, without any timeline, just calling for UN-led follow-up meetings.