Angela Merkel isn’t having a good year. In trying to deal with the refugee crisis plaguing Europe in a manner that pleases and appeases everyone, the German chancellor has sacrificed Europe to the whims of an increasingly despotic Turkish leader.
But it hasn’t taken long for Merkel’s short-sighted handling of the crisis to come back to haunt her. A deal which was meant to continuously ease the flow of migrants and refugees into Europe is now on the brink of collapse over Turkey’s unwillingness to meet Brussels halfway, and criticism is coming from all angles.
Brussels and Ankara have gone back and forth over the details for months. By returning refugees to Turkey from Greece, the deal is supposed to minimize the incentive for people to travel illegally to the EU — taking the pressure off Berlin and Merkel herself. By some assessments, the plan was working. This naturally means all the stops will be pulled out to save it. At issue now is a request from Brussels to have Ankara narrow its definition of terrorism. That’s important, because in the recent past, Erdogan’s government has used the words ‘terrorist’ or ‘terrorist sympathizer’ to go after critics, including journalists.
Blackmail or bust
If Ankara complies with Brussels’ full list of 72 requirements, it will receive €3 billion (US$3.4 billion) to help deal with the refugee crisis, a re-energization of talks on Turkey’s ascension to the European Union — and Turkish citizens will receive visa-free travel to Europe’s Schengen zone. But Erdogan has shown no signs of complying. In fact, he’s doing nothing to hide the fact that he is ready and willing to exploit that Europe, desperate for a deal, has had the weaker hand to play. If Brussels doesn’t back down on its requirements, he has threatened to “turn on the migration tap”.
German politicians of all stripes are lining up to drag Merkel over the coals for leaving their country and the entire European Union along with it, exposed to his blackmail. Far-left Linke party member Sahra Wagenknecht has criticized the chancellor for allowing Europe to become “vulnerable to being blackmailed” and for leaving Erdogan feeling as though he can freely “crush human rights” with what could be seen to amount to tacit support from Brussels.
But when even your allies are wondering whether you’ve lost your head, it might be time to rethink your priorities. The leader of the Bavarian sister party to Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU), Horst Seehofer, has warned that although he is not against talks with Turkey, it is “dangerous to become so dependent” on it.
When you consider how Merkel has handled — or mishandled — the crisis, it’s hard to disagree with her critics.
Unfortunately for Merkel, those critics are now more ubiquitous than ever. Those who were against her original open-door policy feel as though the damage has been done and Erdogan is taking full advantage of Brussels’ desperation to stem the flow of people into the EU, while those who loved her original policy now feel as though she has committed a complete volte-face for negotiating such a deal with Turkey at all.
But it was the moment when Merkel failed to defend a German comedian against Erdogan’s calls for prosecution over an insulting poem that she really proved she’d lost the plot. The humorist, Jan Böhmermann, had read out a satirical poem on TV, provoking Erdogan’s wrath and bruising his delicate ego. Angering millions of Germans and Europeans alike, Merkel put up no objection to Böhmermann’s potential prosecution under a German law which prohibits the insulting of foreign leaders. Instead of defending Böhmermann in the name of free speech, Merkel announced through her spokesperson that the poem had been “deliberately insulting” — as if that somehow made Erdogan’s request to prosecute someone for insulting him OK. The stunning decision on Merkel’s part was a clear demonstration of just how much influence Ankara now has in Berlin.
The comedian later said that Merkel had “served him up for tea” to a despot. Here again it is hard to disagree. The debacle provided ample evidence of Erdogan’s fragile ego and Merkel’s willingness to stroke it, regardless of the cost. Luckily, a German court has so far defended the comedian’s right to free speech above Erdogan’s right to prevent mean things being said about him.
What’s it all for?
Try as one might, it’s hard to imagine what Europe gets out of all this. Either Brussels fails to break the stalemate in talks with Ankara and the refugee crisis takes on renewed urgency once again — or talks continue and Turkey is set on its path to visa-free travel to Europe. Ask any European on the street if that is on their EU wish list and it’s unlikely you’ll receive many positive answers. In fact, for many watching the debacle unfold, it’s completely baffling that visa-free travel for a country that has consistently been accused of harboring and financing Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS) fighters is even on the table at all. And that’s not to mention flagrant human rights abuses and the frequent jailing of journalists.
The EU is not a fan of discord among its nations. When one threatens to step out of line, we start to hear a lot about “unity” and how everything is better together. Looking at Ankara’s current relationship with Brussels, it’s hard to imagine how Turkey would ever fit into that equation. Merkel could have attempted to stop Erdogan in his tracks by warning him that continued blackmail and demands would result not in Brussels bending over backwards to cater to his needs, but in a halt to any more discussion of EU membership or visa-free deals with Brussels. Then again, that assumes Erdogan really cares about joining the EU at all. Something tells me he just wouldn’t really like it that much. Remember, this is a man who has claimed that “democracy, freedom and the rule of law” have “no value” in Turkey any longer.
Merkel has been forced to make concessions and sacrifices because there is now no alternative — and yet the deal is still on the brink of collapse because no matter how hard she tried, it has been impossible to please the Turkish leader quite as much as he would like.
For Erdogan, it’s a game of all or nothing. He gets what he wants, or he tells Brussels to shove it. He can turn the ‘migration tap’ on at will and controls NATO bases vital to American strategic interests in the Middle East. With that hand to play, no one else has a chance.
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