Recep Tayyip Erdogan kept his visitor waiting for a quarter of an hour. But then the Turkish president received Chancellor Angela Merkel with exaggerated good manners. A smile for the cameras, a warm handshake and “Willkommen,” the German word for “welcome.” It is a safe bet things were not so polite behind closed doors.
To an extraordinary degree, Ms. Merkel’s political fate is bound up with the president of Turkey. The country is at the heart of the deal which Ms. Merkel hopes will solve the European refugee crisis. In the agreement, struck between Turkey and the European Union in March, Turkey agreed to accept large numbers of refugees sent back from Europe, in return for financial assistance, visa-free travel to the E.U. for Turkish citizens, and an acceleration of Turkey’s long-frozen application to join the E.U.
In recent weeks, the deal has looked decidedly shaky, not least because its architect on the Turkish side, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, has been forced out of office. A wave of authoritarian measures in Turkey – crackdowns on the press and on Turkey’s Kurdish minority – are also putting the deal under severe pressure. In Germany, Mr. Erdogan has won no friends by pressing for the prosecution of a well-known German television comedian, who broadcast an obscene poem about the Turkish president.
“My questions in this area were not fully cleared up.”
Coming into the meeting, Ms. Merkel announced that she intended to discuss “all important questions” with Mr. Erdogan. The questions focused the increasingly fraught domestic situation in Turkey, covering freedom of expression, press freedom, separation of powers, minority rights, and the independence of the judicial system. A broad, controversial agenda. When the two leaders came out of their talks, the mood was distinctly cooler than when they went in.
The removal of the legal immunity of a quarter of Turkish parliamentarians was “a matter of profound concern,” said Ms. Merkel after the talks. Mr. Erdogan sees things differently, of course. Ms. Merkel summed things up: “My questions in this area were not fully cleared up.”
This is the German chancellor’s fifth visit to Turkey in just eight months, more than she has been to any other country in recent times. But this trip may turn out her most difficult mission yet. She is visiting a country in turmoil: with the dismissal of Mr. Davutoglu and the threats to Kurdish parliamentarians, Mr. Erdogan is tightening his grip on power. Prominent journalists have been jailed; in the country’s south-east, the dormant Kurdish guerilla campaign has surged back to life.
In an interview published on Monday, Martin Schulz, the president of the European parliament, accused Mr. Erdogan of taking Turkey down the road to a “one-man state” – a clear euphemism for “dictatorship.” Mr. Schulz added that “a breathtaking rejection of European values” was taking place in Ankara, clearly seen in the dispute over reforming Turkey’s repressive anti-terror laws. Ms. Merkel said that Mr. Erdogan, in their meeting, had confirmed his rejection of any reform.
If there is no reform, this would mean Turkey had failed to fulfill conditions for lifting E.U. visa requirements for its citizens. But for Turkey, the abolition of visas is the key reward for implementing the refugee deal. If visas are off the table, the agreement starts to look very shaky indeed. This would be very bad news for the German chancellor, who does not want to return to the situation earlier this year, when uncontrolled numbers of refugees were entering Germany, causing social and political tensions which threatened to blow apart her ruling coalition.
In public, Ms. Merkel kept up an optimistic front. “I have the impression this agreement is in both sides’ interest,” she emphasized. Above all, she wants to avoid giving the impression that she can blackmailed. Mr. Erdogan’s provocations have made him an increasingly unpopular figure in Germany, particularly in her own center-right Christian Democratic Union and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, or CSU.
“Mr. Erdogan is taking Turkey down the road to a 'one-man state.'”
Criticism of Mr. Erdogan was restrained only by “a desire not to endanger the deal,” said Horst Seehofer, leader of the CSU, and the premier of the large southern German state of Bavaria. At the height of the refugee crisis, Mr. Seehofer was highly critical of the chancellor, even threatening that Bavaria would take a case against her refugee policy to the constitutional court, a measure he has since dropped.
While in Istanbul, Ms. Merkel tried hard to address criticisms that she is too dependent on the Turkish government. On Sunday, at the beginning of her visit, she met representatives of Turkish civil society to discuss the social and political situation, as well as the latest developments in the country’s legal and Kurdish conflicts. Participants at the meeting included leading figures from business and the law, university professors, journalists and a Turkish representative of Human Rights Watch, a prominent NGO. Planned to last one hour, the meeting went on for over two.
On Turkish state television on Monday, Yigit Bulut, a key aide to Mr. Erdogan, threatened that Ankara could unilaterally suspend all agreements with the European Union if Brussels continued to have “double standards” in its dealings with Turkey. But Mr. Erdogan struck a more conciliatory note. In an opinion piece published in The Guardian, the center-left British newspaper, he committed to the refugee deal.
Mr. Erdogan emphasized the burden borne by Turkey, which has taken more than 3 million refugees from Syria and Iraq, more than any other country. In order to combat illegal migration, he said, the E.U. and Turkey needed to create legal mechanisms for Syrian refugees to enter the E.U.
“By rewarding refugees who play by the rules and making it clear that illegal immigrants will be sent back to Turkey,” he wrote, “we can persuade refugees to avoid risking their lives at sea.”
Gerd Höhler is Handelsblatt correspondent in Athens, Greece. To contact him: email@example.com.