Germany’s Minister of the Interior Horst Seehofer travelled to Turkey and pledged his continued support for Turkey to reorganise the refugee pact between the European Union and Turkey.
The agreement of spring 2016 grants Greece the ability to send illegally arrived migrants back to Turkey. In return, the EU takes over Syrian refugees from Turkey and financially supports Turkey in the care of refugees.
In recent months, worries have been growing in EU countries, as Greece has been receiving significantly more refugees from Turkey over a significant period. Since its initiation, the pact has allocated approximately 3.6 million Syrian refugees in Turkey. No other country has accepted more.
More than 50,000 people have fled across the Turkish-Greek border this year – the most since the agreement came into force. However, with the Turkish economy in decline, the initially practised welcome culture has now also started to decline, also.
The meeting at this point is no coincidence, either. Turkish President Erdogan had repeatedly criticised that the financial support, promised by the EU, was insufficient. While demanding more support, Erdogan has also threatened he could open “the doors to Europe for the refugees”.
In an apparent effort to smooth out recent tensions, Seehofer expressed his thanks towards the Turkish government for its role in tackling the refugee crisis during his visit and recognised that the pressure on Turkey was “enormous”.
It was the reason why “we need to look at how this pact can be strengthened between the European Union and Turkey,” he said before stating Turkey’s efforts would “go down in world history.”
Seehofers Turkish counterpart Soylu said Turkey had fulfilled its obligations of the refugee deal with the 2016 EU. It was now the EU’s part to hold up its end of the bargain.
Soylu warned that Turkey was potentially facing a new refugee wave from the Syrian rebel bastion Idlib if the situation there worsened. Three million people live in the region on the Turkish border. As a result of an offensive by the Syrian government troops, 400,000 have fled northwards since April.
However, Turkey’s vision includes more than monetary commitment. President Erdogan had announced his intention to speak with Seehofer about a security zone in northern Syria, which Turkey has been calling for. It would allow the relocation of several million refugees there as soon as the area was freed from the current Kurdish occupation – Which, after the US troop withdrawal has become highly likely and raises more concern for the EU.
Seehofer confirmed that the Turkish Foreign Minister Soylu “insisted very strongly” that the zone was necessary moving forward. However, Germany and other EU countries have been highly reluctant in even considering Turkey’s proposal. The humanitarian and geopolitical issues a security zone would cause make it impractical for Europe to facilitate it. Accordingly, Soylu’s approach was not discussed in-depth, as Seehofer emphasised Germany’s stance on the issue.
Seehofer did, however, pledged to initiate talks with EU Commissioner von der Leyen and hinted at improvements regarding financial help for Turkey, stating that adjustments were necessary as circumstances, meaning the number of refugees had increased. Thus, the aid needed to be also expanded.
Meanwhile, the EU remains committed to the EU-Turkey deal in all its aspects. Given the increase in the number of refugees in Greece, there was “an urgent need to strengthen the prevention and detection of illegal exits from Turkey,” EU Commissioner Avramopoulos said.
Seehofer’s initiative is considered a surprise in Germany. He is known for his conservative stance on the immigration issue. Members of his party immediately criticised him for his visit to Turkey.
The deal itself has always been seen as controversial in German politics, as the country had become dependent on Turkey and its – in international circles – unpopular President Erdogan. How successful Seehofer’s mediation attempt remains to be seen.
Nonetheless, rumours of a third EU package continue to circulate, while the continuation of cooperating with Greece was and will be inevitable in the process.