German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s return to Ankara for diplomatic meetings with Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has sparked humor that the Chancellor spends more time meetings with her Turkish counterpart than with her own party. While the humor in this sentiment may be a little weak, the reality behind it is anything but.
Merkel has routinely emphasized the EU-Turkey partnership as the integral piece of Europe’s ongoing migrant crisis. The February 7th meeting between the two yielded an agreement to pursue a diplomatic push to halt the Russian-backed assault on Aleppo. This is the latest in a series of cooperations. In November 2015, under German leadership, the EU and Turkey negotiated a joint Refugee Action Plan, promising Turkey 3 billion euro in aid in return for stemming the flow of refugees to Europe, among other things. Funding for the agreement was initially held up by Italy, which was seen as a bid by Italian Prime Minister Renzi to secure leverage on budget negotiations with the EU, rather than because of objections to the agreement itself. Italy has dropped its opposition to the agreement, but it remains unclear from where the EU intends to source the 3 billion Euro. Beyond the EU, Merkel and Davutoglu requested NATO support in tackling the ongoing refugee crisis. NATO’s response came only four days later when it announced it would send ships to the Aegean to help with patrols cracking down on smuggling networks.
NATO’s new mission comes as the Syrian regime’s assault on Aleppo has forced a new wave of people to flee to Turkey. As the attack intensifies, an estimated 70,000 – 100,000 civilians have fled the city of Aleppo for the Turkish border. Germany and Turkey have both criticized Russia for the recent bombings in Syria. Merkel has emphasized, “In the resolution the Security Council demands that all sides stop attacks on civilians and civilian targets without delay, and in particular the use of indiscriminate weapons, such as bomb attacks from the air. It is very specific in the resolution.” Similarly, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently emphasized that Turkey is largely powerless to stop refugee flow out of Syria while the Syrian regime continues strikes against civilians. On Monday morning, it was estimated that 35,000 civilians fleeing Aleppo had already arrived at checkpoints along the Turkish-Syrian border.
Turkey, who only recently tightened its border with Syria under increasing pressure from the international community, now faces urging from the EU to open its border to accept the thousands awaiting entry. On Sunday night, a Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus said that Turkey has reached its capacity to absorb the new wave of refugees. However, Turkey remains committed to aiding those at the border, sending supplies and ambulances across the border. Merkel, during her visit in Ankara, pledged that Germany would take additional refugees directly from Turkey
Since the beginning of the Syrian civil war, Turkey has become shelter to 2.7 million Syrian refugees. An estimated 1,085,000 refugees and migrants arrived in Europe from 2015-2016. The European community continues to be uneasy about the influx of refugees, with many countries adopting aggressive measures in the hope of deterring would-be refugees. Germany is no exception to this hesitance. In 2015 Germany accepted close to 1 million asylum seekers, and Merkel in return fielded criticism from members of the opposition and her own Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party.
Speculation has already begun that Merkel’s refugee policies may cost her her job in Germany’s 2017 elections. However, for the time being Merkel remains without a serious challenger from her own or the opposition party, and still at the helm of EU policy formation. This is good news for Turkey, as an EU under Merkel’s leadership seems to be ever aligned with a strong EU-Turkey partnership. The 10-step, bilateral cooperation agreement, which is to be applied within the framework of the broader EU-Turkey joint Refugee Action Plan further enhances cooperation between two partners struggling with the same ongoing crisis.