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Germany not muzzled by migration pact with Turkey: Steinmeier

The German foreign minister has rejected criticism that Germany is making concessions to Turkey over a migration pact. He said the government would continue to talk with Ankara about issues such as press freedom.

In a newspaper interview published on Sunday, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier (r. in above photo next to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan) denied that the German government was tiptoeing around difficult issues in its dealings with Turkey for fear of jeopardizing an EU migration deal with Ankara.

"We will continue to speak about undesirable developments in Turkey, about restrictions on the freedom of opinion and the press. Anyone who is willing to listen can hear that," he told the "Tagesspiegel" newspaper.

Steinmeier's comments came after Horst Seehofer, premier of Bavaria and head of the Christian Social Union, accused German Chancellor Angela Merkel of conceding too much to Turkey in exchange for Ankara housing Syrian refugees.

"I'm not against talks with Turkey but I think it's dangerous to become so dependent on Ankara," Seehofer told the "Welt am Sonntag" newspaper.

Greens party co-leader Cem Özdemir also told the paper that Europe had put itself in a position where it could be easily blackmailed by Turkey.

Steinmeier, however, said Turkey's interest in the agreement, which includes visa-free travel for Turks to the EU if certain conditions are fulfilled and over 3 billion euros ($3.4 billion), should not be underestimated.

The conditions required by the EU for relaxing visa restrictions were known to Ankara and had been negotiated with the Turkish government, Steinmeier said, adding that "the ball is now in Turkey's court."

"Ankara has to tell us how it intends to answer the open questions," Steinmeier said.

Diplomatic spat

His remarks came amid a row between Brussels and Turkey over the criteria that need to be met for visa-free travel to be extended to Turkish citizens. The EU is calling on Ankara to loosen its anti-terrorism laws as one of 72 conditions for the visa-free travel concession that was agreed in March.

Turkey has refused to change the anti-terrorism laws following a recent spate of terror attacks in the country and has threatened to break off the deal if the EU continues to insist on the condition.

Steinmeier said Germany had to continue to talk with Turkey, which under the deal is taking back migrants who have traveled by sea to Greece from Turkish soil if they do not apply for asylum there.

"Whether we like it or not, Turkey remains the key country for migration to Europe. We need a certain amount of cooperation if we want to avoid situations such as those we had last year," Steinmeier said, referring to the huge influx of migrants and refugees to Europe in 2015. Germany received about 1.1 million asylum-seekers in 2015.

Reduced numbers

The number of people trying to reach Europe from Turkey, many of them refugees from the Syrian civil war, has sunk drastically since the much-criticized deal went into effect on March 20.

Under the agreement, the EU will take in one Syrian citizen for every one that has been sent back to Turkey, though a cap of 72,000 Syrians in total has been imposed - a low number in view of the millions that have been displaced by the Syrian conflict. The measure is intended to discourage people-smuggling via the sometimes perilous route across the Aegean Sea.

tj/sms (dpa, AFP)

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