Chancellor Angela Merkel is in Turkey again. It is her fifth visit in eight months to a country that is the linchpin of her refugee policy.
Yet support at home is eroding as popular opposition mounts to the European Union’s refugee deal with Turkey and to Ms. Merkel’s approach to the crisis.
Nearly 60 percent of all Germans oppose the refugee deal, according to a survey conducted by the polling firm Forsa on behalf of Handelsblatt. Only 31 percent of those surveyed support the agreement.
Ms. Merkel is to discuss the deal with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on the sidelines of the U.N. World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul on Monday.
The chancellor has staked her political future on the successful implementation of the deal.
“I am convinced that it’s in German, European and Turkish interests, and especially in the interests of those who are fleeing war and persecution,” Ms. Merkel said of the deal in an interview published Sunday with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung. She said she understood the criticism, but added: “what irritates me is that it sometimes looks almost as if people are looking forward to it failing.”
Earlier this month, a government spokesman said there’s no “Plan B” and denied reports that E.U. members were considering alternatives should the deal with Turkey collapse.
According to the same Forsa poll, only 44 percent of Germans would support Ms. Merkel remaining chancellor after the 2017 federal elections.
Under the refugee deal, the European Union agreed to grant Turkish citizens visa-free travel if Ankara brings its standards into line with Brussels in 72 areas, including the rule of law and basic rights.
The deal has become increasingly controversial in Germany as Mr. Erdoğan has moved to centralize his political power, has targeted his domestic political opponents and has refused to meet E.U. demands.
On Friday, the Turkish parliament voted to rescind the immunity of 138 parliamentarians, including 50 of the 59 members of the Kurdish HDP party.
“One should never become dependent or allow oneself to be blackmailed.”
Before departing for Istanbul on Sunday, Ms. Merkel expressed “great concern” that the lifting of immunity could have “grave consequences” for Kurdish politicians. But she also indicated that Europe needs Turkish cooperation in the refugee crisis.
“There is of course a mutual dependency,” Ms. Merkel told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung. “You can also call it the necessity of balancing interests.”
The perception that Germany has become dependent on Turkey has exacerbated the already deep split in Ms. Merkel’s conservative camp over her handling of the refugee crisis.
A full 70 percent of the Christian Social Union, the Bavarian sister party of Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democrats, oppose the refugee deal with Turkey.
Horst Seehofer, leader of the CSU and Bavarian premier, told German public television over the weekend that the German government has been restrained in its criticism of Mr. Erdoğan for fear of “jeopardizing the deal” with Turkey.
“One should never become dependent or allow oneself to be blackmailed,” Mr. Seehofer said. “That’s a line for me, and I hope Ms. Merkel also clearly draws this line.”
Under the refugee deal, Turkey agreed to accept the return of migrants and refugees caught making the dangerous journey across the Aegean Sea to Greece. The European Union has agreed to accept one Syrian refugee for each migrant returned to Turkey. So far only 177 Syrians have been relocated to Europe, while 723 further applications have been approved.
Since the deal was implemented, asylum applications in the European Union declined to about 68,000 in April, the lowest number in a year. However, the number of those trying to make it to Europe via North Africa and Italy has surged.
In exchange for the deal, Brussels promised €6 billion in aid and visa-free travel for Turkish citizens if certain conditions are met by Ankara.
One of the most contentious conditions is a reform of Turkey’s broadly written anti-terrorism law. With parliamentary immunity now lifted, there’s concern the law could be used to prosecute Kurdish politicians.
So far, however, the Turkish government has refused to budge on the anti-terrorism law, citing the threat of attacks from the PKK, a Kurdish militant group.
“With the PKK, we face a despicable entity that has a broad network…,” Mustafa Yeneroglu, the chairman of the Turkish parliament’s human rights committee, told Handelsblatt. “In Turkey, the anti-terrorism laws are not up for debate.”
Burhan Kuzu, an advisor to Mr. Erdoğan, said earlier in the month that Turkey would scuttle the refugee deal if the European Union fails to grant Turks visa-free travel.
“The European Parliament will discuss the report that will open Europe visa-free for Turkish citizens,” Mr. Kurzu tweeted. “If the wrong decision is taken, we will send the refugees (back to Europe).”
The fact that the European Union’s chief interlocutor on the issue, outgoing Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, has since been forced out, has increased concerns about the reliability of the Turkish regime. On Sunday, an Erdoğan loyalist, Binali Yildirim, was elected leader of ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, meaning he will soon be appointed prime minister. In his first speech as AKP leader, Mr. Yildirim called on the European Union to be clear about Turkey’s membership prospects.
“The E.U. has one thing to do,” he said. “It has to put an end to confusion on the subject of Turkey’s full membership, and on migration. The time has come to know what they think about Turkey.”
Jan Hildebrand is Handelsblatt’s deputy bureau chief in Berlin. Till Hoppe is the paper’s security policy correspondent. To contact them: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com. Ozan Demircan, Siobhán Dowling, Gerd Höhler, Thomas Ludwig and Frank Specht contributed to this article.