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Transatlantic Take

Germany and Turkey Make New Plans to Ease the Refugee Crisis, Again

Photo by Mstyslav Chernov - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, h

Photo by Mstyslav Chernov - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, h

ANKARA, Turkey—German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s visit to Turkey this week, the second in four months, is emblematic of how important the Syrian refugee crises has become for Merkel — for her power at home and the stability of the European Union. With the recent surge of the Syrian regime forces against the rebels in Aleppo under Russian air support, and tens of thousands of new refugees on Turkey’s borders, the situation has only worsened. During the visit, Merkel and Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu clarified some of the outstanding issues in the previously agreed-upon action plan, and agreed on a new set of measures to deal with the crises. The initiatives are promising, and were welcomed in Ankara, but there is still little reason for Merkel to be optimistic.

After Merkel’s earlier visit to Turkey on October 18, the European Union and Turkey had agreed upon an action plan with Ankara pledging to stem the refugee flow to Europe in return for a minimum of €3 billion, revitalization of Turkey’s EU accession process, and visa liberalization in parallel with a readmission agreement. According to the action plan, Turkey would issue work permits to the refugees to encourage staying in Turkey and would also upgrade its border controls and coast guards.

However, four months after the action plan was announced, there has been little progress and the number of refugees traveling illegally from Turkey to Greece through the Aegean Sea has not decreased even during the harsh winter conditions. The new wave of refugees fleeing the Aleppo offensive created a sense of urgency, which brought Merkel to Turkey again.

One of the most significant outcomes of this week’s visit to Ankara was the appeal for NATO help. According to the plan, which was adopted with unusual haste by the alliance members later in the week, NATO allies will provide increased monitoring capabilities against human traffickers in both the Turkish and Greek territorial waters. During the joint press conference with Merkel, Davutoğlu said “In particular, we will make a joint effort on the effective use of NATO’s observation and monitoring mechanisms on the border and in the Aegean.” Collectivizing the struggle against human trafficking networks in the Aegean Sea will not only make the effort more effective, but will also save Turkey from the suspicion that it is deliberately looking the other way when refugees are making for Greece.

Another important outcome of the visit was the clarification of the financial contribution the EU would make to share Turkey’s burden in taking care of the Syrian refugees. The €3 billion that the EU had pledged to Turkey in the action plan was a source of ambiguity and tension between the two sides because it was not specified when this money would be made available. During her recent visit to Turkey, Merkel confirmed that the €3 billion is a down payment for Turkey, with more money to follow. European Commission Spokesperson Mina Andreeva concurred on Monday, saying that the €3 billion was merely an initial payment. It is not difficult to imagine that, as the cost of keeping the refugees in Turkey increases, Turkey will appeal for more financial contribution from the EU.

The visit also produced a joint diplomatic initiative by Turkey and Germany. During their joint press conference, Davutoğlu and Merkel criticized Russian bombardments causing heavy civilian casualties in Syria and said that they agreed on a joint diplomatic initiative aiming to halt Russian backed attacks against Aleppo. While such an initiative will likely not change Russia’s attitude or the reality on the ground in Syria, it is significant for Turkey that the correlation between Russian policy in Syria and the refugee flow to Europe is recognized.

Merkel’s visit to Ankara did produce some concrete outcomes, but given that the balance sheet of the October deal between Turkey and the EU is not looking great, and the situation in Syria is getting worse, Merkel should not expect too much. As Dr. Şaban Kardaş, director of the Ankara-based Center for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies, said during the 12th GMF Trilateral Strategy Group Meeting last October, “Turkey is like a refugee dam, but the dam is full and the tide is coming Europe’s way.” Unless there is a semblance of peace and stability in Syria, the tide will continue finding its way to Europe.