Speaking in Istanbul at a joint news conference with Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, Merkel said Germany could help accelerate the path to visa-free travel to the EU for Turks and push forward Ankara’s protracted EU membership talks.
In return, she expected Turkey to agree to take back migrants rejected by the EU, something Davutoglu has said he will only agree to if there is progress on the visa issue.
“I think we have used the crisis we are experiencing through a very disorderly and uncontrolled movement of refugees, to again achieve closer cooperation on many issues, both between the European Union and Turkey, and between Germany and Turkey,” Merkel said after meeting the Turkish premier.
Dubbed a “punch-bag” for her own party by some German media due to frustrations over the refugee crisis, Merkel wants to cement a European deal with Turkey on aid and closer ties in return for help in encouraging refugees there to stay put.
She has resisted pressure to tighten Germany’s border controls and turn away refugees arriving from Austria, even as Germany expects 800,000 to 1 million new arrivals this year.
Both the Turkish and German leaders said they had agreed there could be no lasting solution to the migration crisis without resolving the conflict in Syria, from where more than 2 million refugees have now fled to Turkey.
A “safe zone” in northern Syria, a proposal long championed by Turkey but which has gained little international traction, is badly needed if the flow of refugees is to be stemmed, Davutoglu said, warning of a potential new wave of migration as fighting intensifies around the Syrian city of Aleppo.
“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 EU recently,” Davutoglu told the news conference.
But he said that while progress had been made on an EU offer to Turkey last week of an action plan including “re-energised” talks on joining the bloc, as well as aid and the prospect of easier travel visas, several issues remained to be resolved.
“Firstly, the sharing of the refugee burden should be fair. The amount of aid…is secondary. What is more important is the common will to tackle this issue. Turkey has been left alone in recent years,” he said.
Visa-free travel for Turks should be brought forward to July 2016 instead of the current planned 2017 in return for Turkey signing a “readmission agreement” to allow in migrants sent back from Europe, he said. Turkey should also be allowed to participate in EU summits, he added.
“Germany is ready to offer support. If we take the question of visa liberalisation, we can talk in the German-Turkish working group … about specific possibilities to push through visa facilitation,” Merkel said.
Just two months ago, Merkel was practically able to dictate terms to Greece over an aid plan to tackle its debt crisis. But over neighbouring Turkey, she has far less leverage to get her way, particularly as just 10 days ago, she reiterated her opposition to Turkey joining the European Union.