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Turkey’s EU hopes tied to help with refugees

Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany wants Turkey to stem the flow of refugees and migrants to Europe.
Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany wants Turkey to stem the flow of refugees and migrants to Europe.Tolga Bozoglu/Reuters

ISTANBUL — Desperately seeking help to contain Europe’s migrant crisis, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany on Sunday linked accelerating Turkey’s effort to join the European Union to Turkish cooperation in clamping down on the flow of refugees from Turkey to Europe.

Merkel, who has long opposed Turkey’s admission to the union, said she would support speeding up the process if it helps ease the immigration problem.

The concession underscored the degree of importance European leaders place on Turkey’s cooperation in trying to contain the largest flow of refugees since World War II, as people flee violence and deprivation in the Middle East and Africa.

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“No country can shoulder the refugee burden alone,” Merkel said at a joint news conference with Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu of Turkey in Istanbul.

“The job has to be shared,” she added.

A migrant deal between Europe and Turkey would include almost $3.4 billion to help Ankara deal with nearly 2.2 million refugees, mostly from Syria, who now live in Turkey. That would include aid for migrants already in the country, as well as tighter asylum procedures and border security.

In a separate development Sunday, officials in Slovenia said the country will take in only 2,500 migrants a day, significantly stalling the movement of people who have entered the country as an alternative path into Hungary.

A day before, Hungary closed its border with Croatia and the flow of people was redirected to a much slower route via Slovenia.

On Saturday, more than 6,000 people reached Croatia, but most of them were stuck in the country as well as in neighboring Serbia on Sunday, as thousands kept arriving.

At their news conference, Merkel and Davutoglu said no agreement had been finalized and that the particulars were still being worked out.

Davutoglu continued to press for a “safe zone” in northern Syria, a longstanding priority for Turkey that has been met largely by silence from the international community, because it would require a substantial military operation.

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On Sunday, Davutoglu said: “Our priority is to prevent illegal immigration and reduce the number of people crossing our borders. In that respect, we have had very fruitful discussions with the EU.”

Davutoglu said he hoped that Turkish prime ministers could once again attend European Union summit meetings, noting that the current president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, went to a summit meeting in 2004 as prime minister, but then such visits stopped. “We hope Turkey will take a place in the EU family photo,” Davutoglu said.

In the early evening, Merkel met with Erdogan, Turkey’s preeminent decision maker, and they also discussed the migrant crisis, as well as the European Union accession process and counterterrorism.

In a statement, Erdogan said he had asked Merkel for support in accelerating Turkey’s efforts to obtain union membership.

From the start of the Syrian civil war in 2011, Turkey has had an open-door policy for refugees and has spent billions of dollars caring for them. Now that Europe has been drawn into the crisis, Turkish leaders have been quick to point out that Turkey had been “left alone in recent years,” as Davutoglu put it on Sunday.

In the negotiations, Turkey has made visa-free travel to Europe for its citizens a top priority, and Merkel said she had agreed to push that issue forward. Turkey is the only country that has been formally accepted for possible membership in the union whose citizens must have visas to travel to Europe.

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Turkey has long sought to join the European Union — formal negotiations began in 2005 — but the process has stalled in recent years, partly because of European concerns about Turkey’s human rights record and a government crackdown on the news media and freedom of expression.

Now, though, the balance of power has shifted in Turkey’s favor. Europe needs Turkey, which hosts the largest number of refugees in the world, to stem the flow of refugees and migrants who are leaving Turkey’s shores and heading to Greece and then toward other countries on the Continent. The concerns about rights are largely unspoken by European leaders at the moment.

For example, a European Union report on Turkey, part of the accession process, that was expected to be deeply critical of Ankara’s record on the news media and free speech, has been delayed.

This has raised criticisms from analysts and activists who say that Europe is willing to overlook the increasing authoritarianism of the Turkish government in exchange for cooperation on the migrant problem.

Merkel’s visit took place less than two weeks before a snap election in which Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party aims to regain its parliamentary majority, which it lost in June elections.