German Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Wednesday a draft European Union deal with Turkey would be decisive to easing Europe's migrant crisis but made clear the bloc would not compromise democratic principles to win over Ankara.
Speaking on the eve of an EU summit meant to clinch a deal to stem the flow of migrants coming to Europe in return for concessions to Turkey, Merkel said there was still work to do on visa liberalization for Turks and tackling Cypriot concerns before the EU could speed up talks on membership for Ankara.
Chancellor Merkel is under intense pressure at home to solve the migrant crisis after more than a million people seeking asylum entered Germany last year. Voters punished her conservatives in regional elections at the weekend by flocking to the anti-immigrant AfD party.
Merkel, in remarks to the Bundestag (lower house of parliament), insisted that a deal with Turkey would help.
"What is at stake tomorrow and the day after tomorrow is whether we can get a deal that, for the first time, gives us a chance to get a sustainable, pan-European solution to the refugee issue," she said.
Merkel warned that no one should be "deceived" by the slowdown in the influx of migrants to Germany caused by border closures by Austria and other states straddling the migration corridor northwards through the Balkans from Greece.
"The current easing that Germany and some other member states is experiencing is one thing. The situation in Greece is the other and it must be a big concern to us all because it is not without consequences for us all in Europe," she said.
The border closures have left financially strapped Greece with a build-up of tens of thousands of migrants who entered from Turkey, a situation Greek authorities say is untenable.
Merkel tried to assuage concerns, both within Germany and among her EU partners, that she is so desperate for a deal with Turkey that she will go too far in accommodating Ankara.
Turkey wants the EU to open new chapters of its long stalled talks on accession to the 28-nation bloc. Cyprus is blocking that unless Ankara gives ground on long-standing disputes with it and recognises Cypriot nationhood.
"If we do open new chapters as part of deeper cooperation, it remains clear that membership talks between the EU and Turkey are conducted in an open-ended way. And that means that Turkish membership of the EU is really not on the agenda," said Merkel.
Many EU leaders are uncomfortable at having to bargain with a country they see as increasingly authoritarian, with an ongoing military crackdown on Kurdish militants, the seizure of a best-selling newspaper and journalists facing prosecution.
"There will be no reneging on our own principles," Merkel said, adding one obstacle to opening new chapters was "the unresolved question" of Cyprus. "We still have work to do before tomorrow's summit," she said.
"(The EU) will be firm in communicating our beliefs to Turkey on issues like press freedom or dealings with the Kurds."
On visa liberalization, she said the original conditions remained and much still had to change.
The EU has offered to waive visa rules for Turks if Ankara fulfills 72 conditions. Those yet to be met include signing a deal with EU police agency Europol, adopting EU data protection rules and dropping visa requirements for nationals of certain EU member states.