ISTANBUL - Turkey is accusing the European Union of reneging on its commitments to a migrant deal. The accusation comes ahead of German Chancellor Angela Merkel's visit Friday to Istanbul.
The future of the EU deal, which curtailed an exodus of migrants into Europe, is expected to be an essential part of talks between Merkel and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
In an interview with the German Bild newspaper, published Wednesday, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu sent a clear message to Merkel. "Now it is 2020, and we still have not received the first 3 billion euros [$3.3 billion] in its entirety," Cavusoglu said.
Under the 2016 EU migrant deal, Ankara was to receive $6.6 billion in two payments to help accommodate and support the 4 million Syrians who had fled the civil war to Turkey.
Ankara feels cheated by Brussels, pointing out that it honored its side of the bargain, drastically reducing the numbers of migrants entering Europe from Turkey.
Erdogan is expected to press Merkel on the issue Friday when they talk. Berlin is seen as one of the chief benefices of the EU deal. In 2015, Germany received about 1 million refugees, many of whom traveled through Turkey.
'Paramount' for Germany
"For Germany, the refugee deal with Turkey is of paramount importance," said Zaur Gasimov, a senior research fellow at the University of Bonn. “The influx of more refugees from Middle Eastern societies would have a heavy impact on the political process in Germany itself, making AFD [the anti-migrant party] and other political groups of the extreme right stronger. To maintain the status quo is the German aim."
EU funding is vital to Ankara, which says it spent $40 billion hosting Syrians who fled the civil war. Analysts point out the financial burden is increasing, given the sluggish Turkish economy and a growing budget deficit.
Erdogan also is expected to press Merkel for a commitment to support further funding of the EU deal, most of which ends this year. Some analysts warn that given Ankara's strained ties with the EU, there could be resistance among some members to dip again into their pockets.
The fear of a new exodus of migrants, however, gives Ankara powerful leverage over Europe.
"It became a kind of game between Erdogan and Europe," said political scientist Cengiz Aktar of the University of Athens. "He is putting pressure by threatening the Europeans by unleashing hordes of refugees, and they are immediately feeling very afraid, saying, 'Don't, don't, please, we will pay you more.’ It's a kind of fool's game since 2016. They have no chance but to continue paying [Turkey]."
Money is not likely to be the only thing on Erdogan's mind when he meets Merkel. Ankara also is accusing Brussels of failing to honor other parts of the migrant deal.
"We are sticking to the deal, and we take all refugees back who are sent back to us. What about the EU?" Cavusolgu asked in his interview with Bild. "There has been no expansion to the customs union, and no further discussions about our membership of the EU."
Ankara also contends that under the migrant deal, the EU promised to introduce visa-free travel for Turkish citizens. But Brussels has countered by saying those concessions were conditioned on Turkey’s introduction of wide-ranging reforms, which it has not done.
Despite the success of the migrant deal, some analysts point out broader relations between Ankara and Brussels have deteriorated in almost all fields, particularly human rights.
"For Europeans, it’s crystal clear it's an ad hoc [migrant] deal, taking into account only and solely the refugee deal issue," said Aktar. "As things are developing, there is no chance whatsoever that Turkey will restart the negotiation process with the EU. Nor will the Turkish nationals get the visa-free travel to the EU."
But Erdogan is predicted to find more common ground on Syria and the deteriorating situation in Idlib. The Syrian province that borders Turkey is the last rebel stronghold and is under attack by Damascus forces backed by Russian air power.
Erdogan is trying to build international support to pressure Moscow and Damascus to rein in its offensive, which threatens Turkey with another refugee exodus.
"Erdogan consistently says Turkey cannot take any more people," said international relations professor Huseyin Bagci of Ankara's Middle East Technical University. "There is a real fear, by the Turkish side, that from Idlib, a huge wave of refugees can become a reality."
Massing at the border
In January, the United Nations said more than 100,000 people in Idlib had fled toward the Turkish frontier to escape the fighting. Ankara says the number is more than double that.
With the province hosting more than 3 million people, analysts warn that Turkey is facing its most significant influx of Syrians since the start of the civil war.
Turkish public discontent already is on the rise over the presence of Syrians. "Syrian refugees are becoming an explosive social problem," said analyst Atilla Yesilada of GlobalSource Partners, an economic and security research group based in New York.
Erdogan repeatedly has warned that Turkey cannot receive any more Syrians. If faced with an exodus from Idlib, he will open his frontiers to Europe, a warning he is expected to repeat to Merkel.
Despite the challenging agenda for talks, Gasimov said Merkel and Erdogan are experienced in managing their differences. "Both leaders are almost 20 years in power, and have demonstrated their ability to find common tongue," Gasimov said.