German Chancellor Angela Merkel has said she supports accession talks between Turkey and the European Union on a new chapter so that its membership process can gather new momentum, even though she remains skeptical about Turkish membership into the 27-nation bloc.
Speaking at a joint news conference with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Ankara, Merkel, however, pressed the Turkish government to open its ports and airports to traffic from Greek Cyprus, saying failure to do so will mean many other chapters will remain closed. She also reiterated that Turkey's accession process is an open-ended one, meaning that it may not end in full membership.
Despite the cautious tone, Merkel's remarks -- which come as she is becoming increasingly isolated both at home and in Europe with regards to her opposition to Turkey's accession into the EU as a full member -- reinforce optimism that the membership process could come back from a hiatus. Turkey opened accession negotiations with the EU in 2005 but has only been able to finish talks on one of the 35 chapters that a candidate country has to complete before joining the bloc. No chapter has been opened for talks for the past two-and-a-half years.
Merkel had teamed up with France's former President Nicolas Sarkozy in opposing Turkey's membership and had called for a privileged partnership instead, but the new French leader, François Hollande, is more favorable towards Turkish accession and has recently agreed to lift the French veto on the opening of talks on one of the five chapters blocked by Paris.
In comments on similar remarks which Merkel made just before she departed for Turkey last weekend, the EU Commission welcomed member states' steps to proceed with negotiations on new chapters with Turkey.
“This is in line with the conclusions of the [EU] Council last December in which member states committed to active and credible accession negotiations with Turkey respecting the EU's commitments and called for a new momentum in these negotiations,” Peter Stano, the spokesman for Stefan Füle, the EU's enlargement commissioner, said in Brussels on Monday.
Merkel arrived in Ankara after visits to the sites of German Patriots deployed near the Syrian border and the region of Cappadocia, known for its ancient churches, underground cities, fairy chimneys and valleys. She also visited the mausoleum of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern day Turkey, before proceeding for talks with President Abdullah Gül and Prime Minister Erdoğan. Merkel was also due to meet with representatives of non-Muslim communities in Turkey before wrapping up her visit later on Monday.
Merkel said her government wanted religious foundations to operate freely in Turkey and in every country in the world, while also promising that the German authorities would do everything they can to shed further light on the murders of Turkish immigrants by an underground neo-Nazi group and to prevent the repeat of such crimes.
She said Germany's Turkish community constitutes a bridge between the two countries but refrained from announcing any steps to address their complaints, such as the German laws that prevent them from acquiring dual nationality.
The German chancellor also pledged cooperation with Turkey in the fight against terrorism.
On Monday, Merkel began her tour by visiting the Göreme Open Air Museum where she was met with roses thrown from a hot air balloon that has become the symbol of Cappadocia. Minister of Culture and Tourism Ömer Çelik gave the German chancellor information about the region during the visit. Nevşehir Governor Abdurrahman Savaş, Turkey's ambassador to Germany, Hüseyin Avni Karslıoğlu, and Nevşehir deputies Ahmet Erdal Feralan, Murat Göktürk and Ebubekir Gizligider also joined the tour.
Merkel then visited the 11th century Karanlık Kilise (Dark Church) and the Tokalı Kilise (Buckle Church). She took a particularly close interest in frescoes depicting Jesus Christ. During the trip, Göreme Mayor Nuri Cingil presented the German chancellor a carpet as a gift. Speaking with the mayor, Merkel said she found the region spectacular, adding that Cappadocia was one of the places she had always wanted to visit.
The German chancellor also visited fairy chimneys formed by the natural erosion of volcanic deposits. Merkel noted she was glad that hundreds of thousands German nationals visit Cappadocia, located in the central Anatolian province of Nevşehir, every year.
Due to tight security measures taken by Merkel's security guards, a small dispute broke out between her guards and journalists. Some journalists had an argument with the guards when a rope separated members of the press from the delegation.
At the end of the Cappadocia tour, Merkel presented gifts to her Turkish security guards and the driver who took the German chancellor around the region.
The German leader arrived in Nevşehir after a visit to the German troops deployed in the southern province of Kahramanmaraş to operate the two Patriot missile batteries sent by Germany. Germany is one of the three NATO nations that sent Patriot batteries to boost Turkey's air defense systems against missile threats from Syria. The Netherlands and the United States have also each sent two Patriot anti-missile systems.
Speaking in Kahramanmaraş, Merkel said the missiles, provided at Turkey's request, were a signal that the alliance would not tolerate Damascus dragging its neighbors into its conflict. “In view of the terrible events the impression is mounting that China and Russia realize that Mr. Assad no longer has a future, that his time is up and that there must be a democratic government,” she was quoted by Reuters as saying to the German troops.
Merkel said conflicts such as Syria's ultimately need a political solution. She repeated her doubts about arming the Syrian opposition, noting that the weapons provided to Libyan rebels to assist with their uprising had fallen into the wrong hands and had ended up being used in the fighting in Mali.