A large share of the migrants making their way to Europe from Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere pass through Turkey. European Union leaders—chief among them German chancellor Angela Merkel—want to help the country stem the flow, but Turkey wants more than just financial aid in return.
Turkey says it needs €3 billion ($3.4 billion) in aid to shore up its borders. At a recent EU summit, leaders made positive noises about a deal but didn’t delve into specifics. But when Merkel visited Turkey this weekend, she hinted at other concessions in return for greater cooperation on dealing with migrants—namely, visa-free travel in the EU for Turkish citizens and, ultimately, full EU membership.
Merkel’s decision to court Turkey has drawn criticism. The EU has long been critical of Turkey’s record on human rights and free speech, and Merkel’s meeting with president Recep Tayyip Erdogan and other Turkish officials comes amid escalating violence between government forces and Kurdish separatists.
Turkey began formal EU membership talks a decade ago, and remains far from meeting most conditions to join the club. The release of a regular report on Turkey’s progress to meeting the requirements of EU membership—critical of the defense of “fundamental rights” in the country in the past—has been postponed, according to The New York Times.
Merkel’s high-profile visit, featuring much pomp and circumstance, is also just two weeks ahead of national elections in Turkey, in which Erdogan is trying to engineer a parliamentary majority for his Justice and Development Party.
The chancellor’s visit shows how desperately the EU, and Germany in particular, need Turkey’s help to deal with the refugee crisis. Erdogan knew that the normally low-key Merkel would not have otherwise chosen to appear in Istanbul at such a politically charged time, and made the most of the opportunity.