German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s visit to Turkey’s southeastern province Gaziantep near Syriaborder is aimed to shore up a recent EU-Turkey migrants deal, according to experts.
“Germany pinned its hopes of resolving irregular migrant crisis to Turkey’s promise of playing a crucial role of being a gatekeeper,” said Mehmet Seyfettin Erol, a professor of international relations at Gazi University.
“She wanted to make sure the deal is running smoothly by making such a high profile visit which was accompanied by the EU leaders as well,” he added.
European Council President Donald Tusk and European Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans both joined Merkel during the visit to Nizip 1 refugee camp and child protection center in border province Gaziantep, where nearly 5,000 Syrian refugees, including 1,857 children, were hosted.
Turkish security was beefed up ahead of the visit in Gaziantep, next to Kilis, another Turkish border province that has come under repeated rocket attacks possibly by the Islamic State (IS) from Syria and having killed 15 people so far.
Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and the European leaders later inaugurated a center for families and children in the city.
“By visiting the camp, Merkel tries to send a message that the funds that will be provided to Turkey will go to the specific projects for refugees,” said Seyit Arslan, an expert on Turkey-Germany ties.
“In a way, she is trying to allay concerns in the EU that refugee funds may be misdirected,” he added.
“We wanted to make the EU’s assistance as visible on the ground today,” Davutoglu said in a joint press conference with European leaders in Gaziantep.
Merkel said the assistance would be directed to support for the needs of refugees, especially education.
Turkey and the EU signed an agreement on March 18 that was aimed to cut back on irregular migration and refugee flows to Europe through Turkey.
The agreement was made after some one million people reached European shores last year with the ultimate destination for wealthy European states, mainly Germany and Nordic countries.
Brussels pledged to provide six billion euros until 2018 to help ease burden Turkey shoulders for hosting three million refugees as well as granting visa-free travel to Europe for Turkish citizens as of June.
According to the deal, for every migrant Turkey receives, the EU promised to repatriate one to its member states, with a cap set at 72,000.
The deal seemed to have worked in reducing the number of migrants who cross to Greece through Turkey over sea routes.
The International Organization of Migration said on Friday that arrivals to Greece by sea had dropped to an average of 100 per day in the past two weeks.
However, it said the unofficial data for arrivals in Greece in recent days suggested the numbers were picking up again.
“The visit was an opportunity for Merkel and EU leaders to make a point that the EU still matters after they proved the migrant deal is working,” said Arslan.
“After managing to contain Greek financial crisis, the EU has showed for the second time it was capable of handling the migrant crisis as well. Therefore the message was that the EU still relevant and remains as a political power center,” he explained.
Timmermans underlined on Saturday that Turkey has complied with the terms of the agreement.
Nevertheless, the implementation of the deal with all the conditions is far from problem-free outlook.
Turkish leaders have repeatedly warned that the recent migrant deal as well as related agreements may be suspended if the EU fails to deliver on its promises.
One of the sticking issues in talks is the release of the first batch of the EU funds, which amounted to three billion euros.
The European Commission said on Wednesday that it only raised 2.6 billion euros from member states so far, failing short of the target figure. Only 77 million euros has been transferred to Turkey so far.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said this week that the EU is taking it very slow in providing funds it pledged for refugees, and Turkey reserves the right to suspend the agreements.
The Turkish government says it had spent some 10 billion U.S. dollars for the refugees so far but received only 462 million dollars from international donors.
Speaking at the border province Gaziantep in the southeast of Turkey, Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Yalcin Akdogan, who is in charge of refugee and migrant matters, lamented that Turkey was left alone in dealing with the refugees.
Another contentious issue is whether Brussels would deliver on its commitment to lift visas for Turks by June, provided that Turkey complies with 72 pre-determined benchmarks.
Serkan Demirtas, an Ankara-based expert on EU-Turkey relations, said there are huge discrepancies between Ankara and Brussels on the number of benchmarks Turkey have so far satisfied.
“This debate will surely continue until the European Commission releases its advisory report on May 4 and even after it, as the process requires the ratification of the European Parliament,” he emphasized.
Davutoglu said on Saturday that the visa-free deal is crucial for Turkey as the government promised to deliver Turkish people.
Moreover, Germany’s Merkel is facing intense pressure at home front from her coalition partners as well as public in general for agreeing to visa-free travel for Turks and going soft on Turkey in fundamental rights, especially press freedom issues.
“We are always facing this question whether this EU-Turkey agreement is the right one. I am telling you. It is absolutely right and essential,” Merkel said on Friday ahead of visit to Turkey.
She said she had raised democracy, human rights and press freedom in her conversations with her Turkish counterparts.