Merkel’s Delicate Mission in the Bosphorus

Merkel in TurkeyDPA Guido Bergmann
Chancellor Angela Merkel at Sunday's talks with Turkey's Prime Minister.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    • After years of stalled accession talks on Turkey’s progress into the European Union, the situation has changed as Germany is forced to the table, asking for help with its influx of refugees.
  • Facts


    • The E.U. could be giving Turkey $3 billion in aid to help the country deal with more than 2 million refugees.
    • Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel also spoke about providing greater support for Turkey’s E.U candidacy.
    • Officially, Germany expects 800,000 asylum-seeker applications this year, though a leaked report suggested this number could be up to 1.5 million.
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On Sunday, Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel visited Turkey’s Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu in the Dolmabahce Palace, which was designed in the European style in 1856 to bring the former Ottoman Empire closer to the west.

While the Ottoman Empire is no more, the Turkish Republic shares this focus towards the West and this weekend came closer to its goal.

Ms. Merkel came to Turkey to visit Mr. Davutoglu and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at short notice, in need of support to cope with the influx of refugees coming to Germany.

She brought offerings that Turkey has long sought, from support for the country’s membership in the European Union to money to help stem the influx of people fleeing war-torn countries.

“With her visit to Ankara, the German Chancellor is supporting Erdogan’s anti-democratic politics.”

Terry Reintke, Green Party E.U. parliamentarian

Germany is struggling to cope with an influx of refugees coming from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. While 800,000 is the official number of asylum seekers predicted for 2015, a leaked report suggested the country may see 1.5 million people.

Many refugees come from the Middle East to Germany via Turkey and Ms. Merkel believes the country can help reduce the rising numbers of asylum seekers.

“Here, Germany and Turkey will cooperate even more closely, because it is in our common interest that we also come to peaceful solutions,” Ms. Merkel said in a press conference about the civil war in Syria.

She offered a range of incentives, including her support for accelerating Turkey’s E.U. membership negotiations. So far the progress of Turkey’s application to become a member of the European Union has been protracted due to criticisms of its human rights record.

The negotiations are divided into chapters and at the weekend, Ms. Merkel suggested moving forward with the chapter on economic and monetary policy and the chapter on rights and justice.

Ms. Merkel also hinted at her readiness to provide its citizens with a speedier visa process. With an eye to E.U. travel regulations, she emphasized this easing would only apply bilaterally, between Turkey and Germany.

In return, Ms. Merkel insisted on limiting the influx of refugees via Turkey and she conceded that Turkey has gotten little help from the international community so far. “Turkey has taken on more than two million Syrians and refugees from Iraq, but does not get much international assistance. And that’s why we will get more financially involved,” she said, referring to planned E.U. action. “Germany will do its part.”

Ms. Merkel’s visit and her concessions were well-received in the Turkish media. Covering the weekend’s events, journalists wrote that now she and the E.U. have been forced to see that they need Turkey. U.S. magazine Forbes asked whether the “most powerful woman in the world” was now a beggar.

E.U. accession talks stumbled over perceived failings in domestic human rights in Turkey. European leaders only rarely visit Ankara. But given the influx of refugees from Syria through Turkey to Europe, the E.U. is now returning to practical politics. “It’s better to house refugees closer to their homeland, than for us to finance them in our own countries,” Ms. Merkel said after a meeting of E.U. heads of state.


Merkel in Turkey dpa
Germany and Turkey, two countries in closer talks due to the refugee crisis. Source: DPA


Ms. Merkel’s position has rarely been as weak as in Sunday’s talks with Mr. Davutoglu and Mr. Erdogan. She has been losing support daily for her insistence that Germany can handle the rising numbers of refugees ever since her announcement that “we can do it,” refusing to limit the number of asylum-seekers the country can accept.

Among her own conservative Christian Democrats, the number of politicians who oppose her stance is increasing daily.

On Sunday, the youth wing of the CDU called for a cap on the admission of refugees, although Ms. Merkel and her chancellery minister Peter Altmaier had previously argued vehemently against such a move.

Likewise, support among the populace for a generous refugee policy appears to be waning. On Saturday one of Cologne’s mayoral candidates, Henriette Reker, was stabbed, apparently because of her support for Ms. Merkel’s refugee policy.

The chancellor knows that now she has to deliver. In the past, Ms. Merkel has often made reference to an alternative to full E.U. membership for Turkey — a “privileged partnership.” But the concept is loathed in Turkey and never came up in Ms. Merkel’s conversations with Mr. Davutoglu on Sunday.

The Turkish Prime Minister knows that he has the upper hand. Ms. Merkel and the E.U. are dependent on Turkey if the Syrian crisis and the influx of refugees is to be eventually resolved.

During the weekend, there was little talk of concrete numbers; Mr. Davutoglu only mentioned the €3 billion in financial assistance to Turkey to combat illegal migration in passing. “This is not going to be a negotiation, but a coordination,” Mr. Davutoglu said; the words of someone who knows he holds the reins.

Mr. Davutoglu said that Europe had finally recognized the problems that Turkey faces. He now hopes that the refugee crisis will bring new momentum in Turkey’s E.U. application. “At future summits, we want to be in the E.U. group photo again,” he said.

Since Turkey was officially declared a candidate of the E.U., that is no longer possible according to etiquette, Mr. Davutoglu said.


Video: Turkish PM Davutoglu receives German Chancellor Merkel in Istanbul.


Ms. Merkel’s sudden openness to Turkey’s negotiations comes at an awkward time and drew criticism from across the political spectrum.

“With her visit to Ankara, the German Chancellor is supporting Erdogan’s anti-democratic politics,” said Green member of the European Parliament, Terry Reintke. Ms. Merkel is sacrificing human rights in favor of a defense against refugees, said Mr. Reintke.

The pro-business Free Democratic Party’s foreign policy expert Alexander Lambsdorff warned Ankara against making false promises in the negotiations on a common policy. “Anyone who tries to talk about the accession of Turkey to the E.U., is wasting time and energy, which are urgently needed to solve real problems,” he said.

The current decade of accession negotiations over Turkey’s membership did not reach an impasse without reason, he added. “Turkey’s domestic politics are far removed from the values of the E.U.,” Mr. Lambsdorff said. “In recent years, the negotiations have poisoned relations rather than improving them.”

Despite all the difficulties, Turkey is an important NATO ally and strategic partner in the region, Mr. Lambsdorff said, and Brussels and Ankara have many common interests in foreign policy. “An intensive cooperation in humanitarian aid and the control of external borders is right and proper,” he said.

Ms. Merkel’s visit – and her accompanying concessions – will likely boost the Turkish government ahead of elections on November 1, which Mr. Erdogan and Mr. Davutoglu are expected to win.

But ambivalence about refugees also appears to be growing in Turkey. According to a survey by the U.S. Pew Research Center, fewer than 21 percent of 947 Turkish people surveyed are in favor of taking on more refugees than in the past. Two-thirds are calling for their country to receive fewer people from Syria and Iraq.


Refugees in Turkey-01


Handelsblatt’s Ozan Demircan writes about finance; Thomas Ludwig is a correspondent in Brussels.  To contact the authors: o.demircan@vhb.de, ludwig@handelsblatt.com

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