German Chancellor Angela Merkel will use a visit to Turkey this weekend to try to soothe tensions over a deal meant to stem the flow of migrants to Europe, as questions about its effectiveness and long-term viability mount.
The pact, which came into force almost three weeks ago, aims to help end the chaotic arrival of migrants and refugees on the Greek islands, many fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East and Africa. More than a million reached Europe last year.
The deal initially slowed the numbers of new arrivals to Greece sharply, but boats are coming again at a rate of about 150 a day after a hiatus, indicating the “hermetic sealing” of the route appears to be over, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said on Friday.
Merkel will pay a one-day visit with European Council President Donald Tusk to Gaziantep near the Syrian border on Saturday, where the two leaders are expected to go to a refugee camp for Syrians and meet Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu.
There is much at stake for both sides. Merkel lobbied sceptical European partners to back the deal, under which Turkey agreed to take back migrants who cross the Aegean Sea illegally, and is under political pressure at home to show progress.
Davutoglu sold the deal to the Turkish public partly on the basis that Turks would win quicker visa-free travel to Europe in return, a pledge that now could go unfulfilled, at least by the June deadline he had wanted.
Merkel’s visit also comes as she faces criticism at home for allowing a German comedian to be prosecuted for insulting Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan.
“It is both sides that have a strong interest in making this work. Turkey wants support in easing the refugee burden – both financial support and in terms of numbers. And they want visa liberalisation. We have other interests,” a Merkel aide said.
“Ultimately it will depend on both sides fulfilling the criteria they need to. If that doesn’t happen the deal won’t work. Whether it’s sustainable is not clear yet.”
Under the agreement, Ankara gets more EU funding for refugees living on its soil and the revival of long-stalled EU accession talks, as well as the quicker visa liberalisation, the main prize in the eyes of many Turks.
But European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said this week that Turkey must meet all 72 conditions for visa-free travel and the EU would not water down its criteria, rebuffing a warning from Davutoglu that Turkey would no longer need to honor the deal if the promises were not met.
“Merkel is coming tomorrow to soothe both sides,” said Elif Ozmenek, a migration expert at the Ankara-based USAK think tank.
“There have been harsh statements from the EU, and on the other side Davutoglu has threatened to cancel deals. Merkel’s trip is a ‘let’s continue the friendship’ kind of visit.”