Angela Merkel is leaving nothing to chance. The crucial meeting between the European Union and Turkey to discuss the refugee crisis starts on Monday, but the German chancellor was already in Brussels on Sunday, holding bilateral talks ahead of the summit itself. On Friday, she visited Paris for talks with French president, François Hollande, to work on a common European policy on the issue.
Speaking to the German newspaper Bild am Sonntag, Ms. Merkel emphasized that she was sticking to her long-established course. She said she expected “that we will implement, step by step, in practical terms, what was agreed by all 28 E.U. states at the heads of government meeting in February.”
Ms. Merkel is under as much pressure as she ever has been. She must come away from the Brussels summit with some kind of success, even just a little bit. For Ms. Merkel, it is the last chance before three key regional elections to show German voters that she is making some progress on resolving the refugee crisis. The states of Baden-Württemberg, Rhineland-Palatinate and Saxony-Anhalt go to the polls on March 13.
“We will implement, step by step, in practical terms, what was agreed by all 28 E.U. states at the heads of government meeting in February.”
The chancellor still firmly supports a pan-European solution for the refugee crisis, with Turkey playing a key role. The Turks are meant to break up the activities of people smugglers, and ultimately cut off the flow of refugees into the European Union. In return, the Turkish government is demanding, among other things, that E.U. states accept contingents of Syrian refugees sent directly from Turkey.
Ms. Merkel’s junior coalition partner, the center-left Social Democrats, also wants results from the Brussels summit.
“The chancellor’s minimum goal has to be the implementation of the action plan agreed at last November’s E.U.-Turkey summit. That means Turkey seriously joining the fight against illegal migration and against the people-smuggling gangs,” Thomas Oppermann, the parliamentary chair of the Social Democrats, told Handelsblatt. He demanded that Ankara “take concrete steps to integrate Syrian refugees within Turkey.” In return, E.U. states needed to pay their contributions, so that the promised financial assistance could be transferred to Turkey, he said.
The European Union has promised Turkey €3 billion, or $3.3 billion, in refugee-related aid over the next two years. The first €95 million has already been sent to Ankara. But there is a sticking point: the Turkish government regards the €3 billion as an interim payment only, insisting that further payments will be needed in years to come.
“The special summit with Turkey has enormous significance for the future of Europe, and for the future of Germany too,” Mr. Oppermann said.
On one question at least, there appears to be some progress with Turkey: the return of economic migrants to that country. Ankara has indicated it is prepared to accept people who have been refused asylum in the European Union, as long as they come from countries other than Syria. Agreement on this point must be a central message of the summit, said Dimitris Avramopoulos, the European commissioner for migration and home affairs. This process has already begun: last week, for the first time, a large group of refugees was sent back to Turkey, a total of 308 people.
However, only a few E.U. states have shown themselves willing to accept contingents of Syrian refugees from Turkey. The summit invitation issued by Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, hinted for the first time at a general will to a consensus-led solution at a European level. But it’s unclear whether consensus will emerge at the summit. After meeting with Ahmet Davutoglu, the Turkish prime minister, the 28 E.U. heads of government will also meet separately.
“E.U. states taking quotas of Syrian refugees is the most human and best solution for all concerned.”
Ms. Merkel also has to keep an eye on support within her own party, the center-right Christian Democratic Union. Although she has shown great political skill in defusing opposition within her party throughout the crisis, the regional elections may mark a turning point.
In an interview with Handelsblatt, Julia Klöckner, leader of the CDU in Rhineland-Palatinate, one of the states where elections will take place, said her focus was on better planning and easing the pressure on local governments.
“They are bearing the main burden in the refugee crisis,” said Ms. Klöckner, who in recent months has carefully positioned herself as a loyal but pointedly critical supporter of Ms. Merkel.
Ms. Klöckner also emphasized that Turkey must be a key part of any solution. She said that E.U. states taking fair quotas of Syrian refugees was “the most human solution and the best for all concerned.” If the E.U.’s external borders were secured – something that demands Turkish cooperation – then a plan to distribute Syrian refugees could go ahead, even if some E.U. states refuse to participate, she said. An increasing number of E.U. states, especially in central and eastern Europe, have adamantly refused to accept mandatory quotas of Syrian refugees.
Last November, the European Union and Turkey already agreed on an action plan meant to radically reduce the number of migrants entering the Europe illegally through Turkey. But so far, the flow of migrants has hardly diminished. In January and February alone, 122,000 refugees arrived in Greece via Turkey.
Sources in Brussels say there is still considerable room for improvement in Turkey’s efforts to stop refugees and people smugglers. There have been difficulties regarding Turkey’s cooperation with NATO in the Aegean Sea between Greece and Turkey. NATO’s task in the Aegean is to gather information about people smugglers operating off the Turkish coast, and report them to the Turkish authorities.
But until very recently, non-Turkish NATO ships were not permitted to enter Turkish territorial waters. On Sunday, this restriction was lifted. The move is being interpreted as an important signal from Turkey ahead of the summit.
Jan Hildebrand leads Handelsblatt’s financial policy coverage from Berlin and is deputy managing editor of Handelsblatt’s Berlin office. Thomas Ludwig is one of Handelsblatt’s European Union correspondents in Brussels. Klaus Stratmann is the deputy bureau chief of Handelsblatt in Berlin and covers the energy market. Daniel Delhaes reports on politics, transport and airlines from Handelsblatt’s Berlin office. To contact the authors: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.