Overwhelmed by the number of migrants at their door, Angela Merkel and other European leaders are looking to Turkey to control the flow
Under intense pressure to stem the flow of refugees into Europe, German Chancellor Angela Merkel made a weekend trip to Istanbul, where she pledged to push forward Turkey’s long-delayed bid to join the European Union in return for cooperation in dealing with the worst refugee crisis the international community has seen since the end of the Second World War.
Merkel’s trip followed a Oct. 15 summit in Brussels, where—for the fourth time in six months—European leaders grappled with the wave of migration headed toward the continent. This time, rather than arguing over refugee quotas or funding for search-and-rescue operations in the Mediterranean, they turned their attention to the newest gateway of the exodus: Turkey.
Turkey is now the main transit country for Syrian refugees and other migrants: nearly four-fifths of the more than 615,000 people who arrived in Europe by sea this year left from Turkey’s west coast to reach nearby Greece via the Aegean Sea. The migrants come from Afghanistan, Iraq, Eritrea and elsewhere, but the vast majority are Syrians. With the Syrian civil war approaching its fifth year, the U.N. refugee agency noted large numbers of Syrian refugees in camps are sinking deeper into abject poverty due to a shortfall in aid from the international community. Various factors have brought about the surge in migrants this year, but rapidly deteriorating conditions in refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey have played a major part in driving the exodus of people risking their lives to reach Europe.
Turkey alone is hosting more refugees than any other country in the world, including some 2.2 million Syrians fleeing their country’s civil war. Unlike Syria’s much smaller Middle Eastern neighbors, it is the only country in the region with enough resources to do more to help—as Europe has belatedly realized.
“Turkey plays a key role in this situation,” Merkel told the German parliament on Oct. 15. Germany expects to take in 1 million refugees in 2015 alone, compared to a total of 200,000 for the whole of 2014. Merkel, hailed as a hero for welcoming far more refugees than any other European country, is increasingly coming under pressure from her own conservative base to slow the pace of refugees arriving. At an Oct.14 meeting of her party, local officials called Merkel’s strategy a failure and called for her ‘dethroning.’ Among the broader public, she faces a growing backlash over the refugee crisis: her personal approval ratings have dropped to a four-year low. Meanwhile a rising tide of anti-migration sentiment is becoming harder to quell: on Saturday, Henriette Reker, a German city official was stabbed in the neck over her work with refugees.
Facing the hard reality of how to deal with the newcomers, Merkel introduced temporary border controls in September, but resisted demands to turn away migrants arriving from Hungary and Austria or to seal the border. In a bind, she is looking to Turkey to help reinforce the E.U.’s external frontiers.
Merkel’s offer on Sunday to jumpstart Ankara’s protracted E.U. membership talks highlight just how crucial Turkey is for this new strategy. Formal discussions over admission to the bloc began in 2005 but stalled in the wake of human rights concerns. Merkel was a long-standing opponent of Turkey joining the E.U., on the grounds of its refusal to open up its ports to E.U. member Cyprus. In 2013, she blocked new accession talks in the wake of Ankara’s crackdown on protestors and Merkel even reiterated her opposition to Turkey joining the E.U. earlier this month. Now, however, she has also agreed to help Turkey in its long demands to get easier visas for Turkish citizens who wish to enter the borderless Schengen zone of Europe. (Turkey is the only formally-accepted candidate for E.U. membership whose citizens are yet to qualify for this.)