ATHENS – After European Union leaders meeting Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan were unable to re-carve a suspended 2016 refugee and migrant swap deal after he sent thousands to the Greek border, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said tension should be ramped down amid fears it could bring a conflict.
Mitsotakis said he still wants to try diplomacy with Erdogan – who won’t talk to him or be in a photograph with the Greek leader. But, added Mitsotakis, “Turkey’s recent decisions… have been particularly provocative for Greece” and urged the neighboring country to “de-escalate” the situation on the Greek-Turkish border, said Kathimerini.
“The events of the past 10 days have made relations between the two countries even harder. This is why it is essential that Turkey makes some move of de-escalation,” Mitsotakis told the German Council on Foreign Relations during a visit to Berlin.
That was in reference to Turkey sending refugees and migrants in hordes to the crossing point near the Evros River after 33 Turkish soldiers were killed in an area of northern Syria they’d invaded.
Erdogan said that could lead to even more coming to Turkey, which is already housing more than 3.2 million from Syria and some 5.5 million refugees and migrants in all, which he warned he would send to the EU, mostly through Greece and its islands, if not aided.
The move poses an “asymmetric threat” to Greece, Mitsotakis said, adding that “many of the people on the border had orders or were forced to go there.”
“We have spent many sleepless nights” since the influx began on February 28, the Greek premier said.
“We are doomed to live together, but not in conditions of blackmail as Turkey is trying to impose on Greece and the European Union. We are never the ones to provoke, but we will respond forcefully to any challenge,” Mitsotakis said.
He denied Turkish claims that Greek army units and riot police on the border had killed any refugees or migrants trying to cross, calling it fake news. “As prime minister of Greece, I will not take human rights lessons from Turkey,” he said.
Erdogan, who hasn’t been sanctioned by the EU despite breaking the swap deal and continuing to send fighter jets and warships to invade Greek airspace and waters, went to Brussels to try to renegotiate the agreement but failed, said the Bloomberg news agency.
Erdogan held talks with European Council President Charles Michel and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on migration and the crisis in Syria, days after those EU leaders went to the Greece-Turkey border and called on him to honor the deal.
“Neither side seemed happy with the result of a near two-hour meeting in Brussels, with Erdogan leaving without speaking to the media, and senior EU officials warning there was a lot still to discuss, as they demanded Turkey continue implement their 2016 migrant deal,” Bloomberg said.
Officials from both sides will now work “to be certain we are on the same page,” Michel told reporters in Brussels after the meeting, said media reports, including from Turkey’s Ahval, an online site published in English.
Under the 2016 agreement, Turkey would stop refugees and migrants from coming to the EU, which had closed its borders to them, and wouldn’t let them get to Greece but he allowed human traffickers to keep sending them to Greek islands.
In return, Turkey was supposed to get 6 billion euros ($6.81 billion,) visa-free travel for Turks in the EU and faster-track entry into the bloc that Turkey has been trying to join since 2005, upended after a failed July 2016 coup attempt that saw Erdogan purge civil society, the courts, military and start jailing journalists by the dozens.
Some 3 billion euros ($3.41 billion) still hasn’t been paid and Erdogan had repeatedly threatened to open his orders and now that he’s done the EU has opted to continue talking even though this round failed to bring a consensus.
“It remains valid, and we need to implement missing elements,” von der Leyen said of the original deal. “We have indicated to President Erdogan that we are willing to move forward as long as it is reciprocal,” she said.
The EU and Turkey agreed to only review the deal, which hasn’t ramped down the anxiety on the border with Greece as Mitsotakis has tried to build an international alliance in support of Greece and after his government said anyone who crossed after March 1 would be deported to their countries of origin.
The government also is seizing properties on islands holding some 42,000 refugees and migrants for new centers to vet those ineligible for asylum and cut off all benefits to those already granted sanctuary, drawing heat from human rights groups.
Michel said teams headed by the EU foreign policy chief and Turkey’s Foreign Minister would work “in the next days to clarify the implementation of the deal between Turkey and the EU to be certain that we are on the same page.”
Von der Leyen said that during the talks with Erdogan “There was a clear focus on, ‘Let’s discuss what is fact. Let’s sort out how both sides see the past and how we evaluate the EU-Turkey statement,” using careful diplomatic language that essentially said nothing.
The Turkish leader left without speaking to the media. Officials from his office described the talks as “productive” even though they weren’t as both sides tried to put a positive spin despite not reaching any agreement.
Turkey hosts more than 3.5 million Syrian refugees, and Erdogan has demanded that Europe shoulder more of the burden of caring for them.
The EU says it is disbursing the funds but also accused Erdogan of “blackmail” for waving migrants through to Europe late last month after the Turkish soldiers were killed while fighting in northern Syria.
Asked whether Erdogan promised to restart Turkey’s efforts to prevent migrants from leaving the country, Michel said, “What’s in the statement, and what’s in the camp of Turkey has to be fulfilled,” essentially admitting there was no progress, leaving Greece in the lurch.
EU countries have rallied behind Greece, which is also a member of NATO, and described it as a “shield” protecting Europe’s borders with the outside world but without a military the bloc’s leaders can only issue press releases or tweets unless turning to sanctions.
TALKING THE TALK
Earlier, a high-level Turkish official, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with government rules, said the sides would discuss a possible revision of the agreement. It wasn’t immediately clear if the review will lead to one.
Erdogan had also been expected to raise concerns over alleged violence by Greek authorities as they push migrants back to Turkey.
Greece has deployed riot police and border guards to repel people and the border area has since seen violent confrontations. On Saturday, youths threw rocks at Greek police and tried to pull down a border fence.
Many migrants have alleged mistreatment at the hands of Greek police, and Turkey says two migrants were killed in violence along the border. Greece has denied the accusations.
Von der Leyen said that the use of “excessive force” is unacceptable and that security action should be “proportionate,” but the EU has generally been unwilling to openly criticize the actions of the police.
Tens of thousands of migrants were already in Greece before Turkey announced its borders open, many of them in massively overcrowded camps on Greek islands facing the Turkish coast.
Part of the 2016 EU-Turkey deal stipulates that new arrivals must remain on the islands pending deportation unless they successfully apply for asylum in Greece.
Germany’s coalition government said the country was willing to “support Greece regarding the difficult humanitarian situation of about 1,000 to 1,500 children on the Greek islands.”
The government said Germany could host children in dire need of medical treatment or those who are unattended minors younger than 14, especially girls. It didn’t say how many children Germany would take, but said an agreement would be negotiated by a European “coalition of the willing.”
The situation on the Greek-Turkish land border was generally calm on Marcy 9. Greek authorities said in the 24 hours to that morning they had blocked 1,646 attempts to cross the border and arrested two people – one Moroccan and one Egyptian.
(Material from the Associated Press was used in this report)