The refugee agreement between the European Union and Turkey is holding on by a thin string, as tensions mount on both sides.
Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, appears determined to use the agreement to push through a key government demand for visa liberalization, in return for stemming the flow of Syrian refugees to Western Europe.
In a televised speech to municipal leaders on Tuesday, Mr. Erdogan said the European Union needs Turkey more than Ankara needs the economic bloc.
Meanwhile, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said the country would not abide by the refugee agreement reached in March if Brussels failed to implement the pledge to grant Turks visa-free travel in the economic bloc by June.
If the European Union fails to stand by the agreement, “no one can expect Turkey to adhere to its commitments,” he told reporters on Monday.
Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, appears determined to use the agreement to push through a key government demand for visa liberalization
Tensions are high, following a report published by the European Parliament last week accusing Turkey of backsliding on democracy and pressuring Berlin to prosecute a German comic over a poem satirizing Mr. Erdogan.
On Tuesday, Volker Schwenck, a journalist from the German public broadcaster ARD, was detained in the Istanbul airport and refused entry into Turkey. The journalist was planning to travel to the Syrian-Turkish border to speak with Syrian refugees fleeing their country to escape Islamic State atrocities and the ongoing civil war. Turkish officials gave no explanation.
Chancellor Angela Merkel said the German government was monitoring the development “with some concern.”
The stressed relations come ahead of a trip on Saturday, when Ms. Merkel and several top E.U. officials will travel to the Turkish city of Gaziantep on the Syrian border to discuss implementation of the refugee agreement.
Under the E.U.-Turkey agreement, all migrants arriving in Greece would be sent back to Turkey and one Syrian refugee would be resettled for each Syrian returned, up to a ceiling of 72,000.
“The number of refugees setting off for Greece from Turkey in boats has dropped on average to about 60 a day,” Mr. Davutoglu said a speech to the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly in Strasbourg.
In return for helping stop the flow of migrants entering E.U. territory, Ankara won several promises from Brussels, including financial aid, visa-free travel within the Schengen zone and the opportunity to accelerate talks for its long-stalled membership bid in the bloc.
The European Commission, the executive arm of the European Union, said Tuesday it would send an additional €110 million ($125 million) in humanitarian aid to refugees in Turkey. The funds would bring E.U.’s total support so far to €187 million.
Under the accord reached in March, the European European pledged an initial €3 billion in aid for Syrian refugees in Turkey, with a view to doubling that figure if all goes well.
Turkey is currently hosting around 2.7 million Syrian refugees.
At least 4,500 Syrian refugees are to be brought into the European Union over the next four months, according to a plan that interior ministers of E.U. member states hope to agree to at a meeting on Thursday. “We must now make it clear that we will keep our part of the bargain with Ankara,” a diplomatic source in Brussels told Handelsblatt.
So far, 325 migrants have been sent back from Greece to Turkey, while 103 Syrians have been resettled in E.U. member states, including Finland, Germany and the Netherlands, according to Commission figures.
When the maximum number is reached, it is expected that E.U. member states will voluntarily jump in and take in more Syrians as part of a humanitarian program. But many doubt that will happen. Behind the scenes, Germany is campaigning intensively for a “coalition of the willing” to voluntarily accept refugees.
The prospect of visa-free travel for Turks is highly controversial in several E.U. states, where voters have lashed out at their leaders for bending over to meet Mr. Erogan’s demands. Many are critical of his growing authoritarian style.
A few E.U. states, including Germany, Austria, and France, want to have a security mechanism in place to take effect should there be a rush for visa-free entry.
While political observers note that Mr. Erdogan will fight to avoid having to offer Turks a “visa-light” option, E.U. President Jean-Claude Juncker stressed in a recent speech: “There will be no sellout of our values.”
Turkey said it has fulfilled 58 of the 75 conditions for the visa liberalization, with the remaining 17 points to be met in May. These include issuing biometric passports that meet E.U. technical requirements.
The Commission will present its third progress report on visa liberalization for Turkey on May 4, the executive body said Wednesday in a statement. The visa measure, if passed, could go into effect at the end of June.
European Council President Donald Tusk referred to the refugee crisis as a “never-ending story” in a speech last week to the European Parliament. “We are faced with a tenuous, perpetual and multi-dimenstional effort,” he said. “The solutions we are putting into practice are not ideal and will not end our work.”
John Blau is a senior editor at Handelsblatt Global Edition. Kirsten Ludowig is deputy editor of Handelsblatt’s companies and markets section, specializing in the trade sector. To contact the author: email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org