Germany’s Merkel doesn’t want to crash the EU deal

Germany’s Merkel doesn’t want to crash the EU deal

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan poses a difficult dilemma to Western political leaders. They see that their sole interlocutor in Turkey is Erdoğan, but he is fast turning into an authoritarian ruler by consolidating his rule with each passing day. 

Erdoğan’s arrogance, his constant bashing of the West, and his denigrating rhetoric is increasingly irritating for Western leaders. However, they have no choice but to find a way to work with Erdoğan, as Turkey is an indispensable partner in dealing with critical issues like the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and the refugee crisis.

They hear the complaints of democracy advocates in Turkey but say “we cannot fight your fight.” “Erdoğan did not hide his aspiration for a one man rule. He and his party have won solid electoral victories. This is the choice at least half of the Turkish nation,” they argue. And they see there is no alternative to Erdoğan in the near future.

Finding a way to work with Erdoğan

Germany’s Prime Minister Angela Merkel is under fierce criticism in her country, Europe and Turkey for striking a deal with Ankara to stem the refugee deal. While the details of the deal were worked out during Ahmet Davutoğlu’s period as prime minister, Merkel was always aware that the main decision-maker was Erdoğan. With Davutoğlu sacked by Erdoğan and replaced by a “yes man,” she now knows that she is facing a much harder road ahead to keep the deal alive.

Western leaders, including Merkel, are aware of the fact that Erdoğan is looking for a window of opportunity to change Turkey’s parliamentary system into a presidential one. A referendum on the issue - or even early elections to secure enough votes for the ruling party to amend the constitution without a referendum - within the next six months cannot be excluded.  

So Erdoğan will continue to prioritize his interests over those of the country. Because he saw during the November general election campaign that his anti–terrorism rhetoric, as well as his bashing of the West, is paying off, he will continue on that line too. 

It was therefore not surprising to see Erdoğan objecting to one item, the “terrorism item,” out of the 72 criteria that Turkey needs to fulfil in order to secure visa-free travel to Europe. He used this opportunity to portray himself as the “uncompromising leader” against terror defying all of Europe.

Put yourself in the place of Merkel, who was due to meet Erdoğan yesterday in Istanbul, where she had come to attend the World Humanitarian Summit. She would be talking to a leader who recently said, “Don’t insist on the terrorism criteria. If you do so, you can go your own way and we can go ours.” 

If she were to use similarly strong rhetoric, banging her fists on the table, she would return to Germany to a hero’s welcome. Her allies in Europe would say, “It’s much better like that. We should not have even spoken to Turkey from the start. Let’s solve the refugee problem on our own. Let’s build walls around Europe and leave the refugees outside.”

Merkel is probably irritated by the irresponsible stances of some of her European allies and feels it is utterly unethical for an EU of 500 million to avoid burden-sharing, not even hosting together as many refugees as Turkey or Jordan. She must also still see that the deal is in the interest of Turkey, so she does not want the deal to collapse. But she is also under a moral obligation to raise issues of concern with Erdoğan, like the recent move to lift the parliamentary immunities of some deputies.

So Merkel will try to continue the process without burning the bridges. The challenge is this: She needs to make sure not to give the impression that Europe is bowing down each and every time Erdoğan yells at it. 

As a result, yesterday she probably told Erdoğan that the EU’s criteria on terror is not something new, and it was among the 72 criteria accepted back in 2013. While she can use clear language on issues of concern, like the lifting of the parliamentary immunities, she also wants to make sure that the meeting does not end with a crash.