German chancellor Angela Merkel said she was not worried about the fate of a migrant pact between the EU and Turkey, but said more time was needed to overcome differences with Ankara over visa-free travel for Turks.
The EU is trying to keep a deal on track which would allow Turks visa-free travel to the bloc in return for Turkey continuing to stop illegal migrants reaching Europe from its shores.
So far, Turkey has declined to fulfil all the EU’s conditions which include changing its anti-terrorism laws. Rights groups say Ankara uses them to stifle dissent but Turkey says it needs them to fight threats from Islamic State and Kurdish militants.
“I am not concerned, we just need more time,” Ms Merkel said after a cabinet meeting outside Berlin. She has championed the deal, saying it will help to stem the flow of migrants to Europe after more than 1m arrived in Germany last year.
Critics accuse Ms Merkel of softening her stance on EU candidate Turkey’s human rights record to save the deal. Ms Merkel reiterated that Ankara had to fulfil all 72 conditions stipulated by the EU to win visa free travel and said it would hold further talks with the European Commission.
“But fundamentally we on our side are standing by our agreements,” she added. EU officials and diplomats have said an end-of-June deadline for the visa issue is likely to be missed. Yet there is little sign of a change in stance from Ankara.
Just days after Turkish president Tayyip Erdogan appointed a new prime minister to consolidate his grip on power, his new minister for EU affairs, Omer Celik, warned that while relations with the EU were important, they were not the “sole option”.
Celik told reporters that Turkey wanted the EU to drop what he called its “double standards” in the fight against terrorism.
Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu has warned that Ankara could cancel a range of agreements with the EU if it fails to keep its promises.
Meanwhile, 3,000 migrants were saved off the Libyan coast on Tuesday in 23 separate rescue missions.
The Italian coastguard said this meant more than 5,600 migrants had been rescued from various boats and dinghies in the southern Mediterranean in just two days, with every ship in the area being called on to help with the complex operation.
Humanitarian organisations say the sea route between Libya and Italy is now the main route for asylum seekers heading for Europe, after an EU deal on migrants with Turkey dramatically slowed the flow of people reaching Greece.
Officials fear the numbers trying to make the crossing to Italy will rise as weather conditions continue to improve.
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