Time to start talking Turkey with Erdoğan

Angela Merkel needs a set of policy alternatives that she can build on if Erdoğan does, in fact, let her down, or if he continues to raise the price tag, strengthening the voice of her critics at home and in Europe as a whole.

In a recent ECFR commentary Asli Aydintasbas argued that the sudden departure of Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu may not necessarily signal the end of the refugee deal with Europe, but will certainly raise the stakes for Europe in its future dealings with Ankara.

This reasoning has been clearly expressed in Berlin over the past few days. There is a greater degree of unpredictability that comes with a counterpart like President Tayyip Recep Erdoğan, not only in terms of his policies and diplomatic style, but also because for many years he has been an active and often provocative communicator with the wider German public, the latest instance being over the controversial Böhmermann satire.

Chancellor Angela Merkel needed the refugee deal with Turkey more than other EU heads of state in order to curb the number of newcomers into Germany earlier this year, and ultimately, she managed to clinch it. That deal (German officials make it clear in conversations that “deal” was not an appropriate use of term, perhaps because of its pejorative undertone) was described by the chancellor in a government policy declaration in the German Bundestag in March 2016 as “the first real chance to a sustainable and pan-European solution for the refugee crisis”. With that, she placed high expectations on the agreement, suggesting it was a clear cut “solution” rather than a building block that constituted one part of a broader mix of policies to respond to this, and future challenges of migration.

Conversations in Berlin over the past weeks have indicated that there is a sense of relief, even enthusiasm, that yes, after months of mounting domestic pressure, suddenly numbers of incoming people have significantly declined.  The closure of the route through the Balkans already meant that in March 2016 only about 130 people arrived in Germany per day (compared to several thousands in 2015 and early 2016). Minister of the Interior Thomas de Mazière concluded at the meeting with his EU counterparts in Luxemburg in April that the agreement with Turkey was working, as the numbers of new arrivals on the Greek islands from Turkey had dropped. “The message is understood by migrants”, “the numbers are proving us right”, and “this problem is solved”, were some of the statements we have heard in Berlin, and until last week there was also a sense of optimism on the implementation of visa liberalisation for Turks before the summer, which was agreed as part of the deal.

Now, if things go wrong, Germany will be one of the countries in Europe that is affected the most. Not only because Germany is likely to continue to be an attractive destination for refugees and migrants if numbers pick up again (which is likely to happen anyway, from different destinations and via different routes), but also because Berlin has invested so much in forging an agreement with Ankara, while only just managing to make it look like a “European” deal.

Turkey has been “rediscovered” as a country of major strategic importance by Berlin lately, and the newly forged Turkish-German alliance has raised questions in other European capitals. If, for whatever reason, the deal fails, this will be a major defeat for Angela Merkel. She owned the conclusion of the agreement, and she will own the consequences of it, whether good or bad. At home, she is increasingly being criticised by the opposition in the Bundestag for creating a dependency on Turkey at a time when the country is coming down hard on press freedoms and ethnic minorities, as well as on artists, scientists, and the opposition. The Green Party (Die Grünen) put the government’s Turkey policy on the agenda of a plenary session in late April, and it was clear in the course of the debate that the target of criticism was Chancellor Merkel, specifically.

While the government was reluctant to comment on the shift of power towards the Turkish president after the prime minister’s departure, Norbert Röttgen, the head of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the Bundestag and a member of Chancellor Merkel’s Conservative Party (CDU), called it “bad news for Europe, and Turkey” in an interview with national public broadcaster Deutschlandfunk. He suggested the departure of Davutoğlu indicated a major Turkish shift away from Europe. On the question of visa liberalisation Röttgen underlined the conditions set by the European Commission that were required for implementation and stressed that if Turkey wants visa liberalisation and cooperation with Europe it has to change its ways. Finally, he made clear that it was now entirely up to Turkey to demonstrate its willingness and readiness.

With mounting political pressure in Berlin, Angela Merkel will not have a great deal of flexibility when dealing with a Turkey that is keen on raising the price tag of the deal, and for future cooperation in other fields. On the other hand, she is likely to have public opinion on her side as long as she is pursuing measures that help avoid the sense of a loss of control again. She will be keeping an even closer eye than usual on the electorate anyway, with federal elections on the horizon in 2017.

The departure of Davutoğlu also means that the German government is forced to think more clearly about its other policies to curb irregular migration into Europe, and Germany, in case the Turkey deal falls apart. These efforts have been going on for months now, both at a national and EU level. However, because of the heated public debate over German-Turkish relations and the refugee deal, these other policies have largely been overlooked in Germany’s wider public debate recently.

For this week’s Bundestag plenary session the government coalition parties have put the foreign policy dimension (specifically, the fight against the root causes of migration) on the agenda, and have also come up with proposals to bolster their support for countries surrounding Syria and Libya, in order to help them handle the large numbers of refugees they are receiving. Berlin’s diplomatic machinery has also continued to work hard to contribute to bringing an end to the war in Syria.

In short, Angela Merkel needs a set of policy alternatives that she can build on if Erdoğan does, in fact, let her down (not terribly likely), or if he continues to raise the price tag (more likely), strengthening the voice of her critics at home and in Europe as a whole.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Head, ECFR Berlin
Senior Policy Fellow

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