Merkel suddenly falls in love with Erdoğan
German Chancellor Angela Merkel has decided to pay an unusual visit to Turkey, set for Oct. 18. The visit will come just two weeks before her host’s key snap election on Nov. 1.
It is unusual because of the timing. Usually, Western leaders are careful not to pay visits to countries so close to an election, in order to avoid being seen as taking sides. Merkel is not a huge fan of President Tayyip Erdoğan or Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu anyway.
However, although she remains the most powerful opponent to Turkey’s membership of the European Union, Merkel has suddenly rediscovered the key importance of the country for the well-being of the EU. In a statement delivered before a meeting of the European Commission on Oct. 15, Merkel said Europe must cooperate with Turkey in order to tackle the migrant crisis.
Can we assume that if the 2 million Syrian refugees escaping from Bashar al-Assad’s civil war hit country over the last four years had not started to pile up at the gates of Germany this summer, she would not be paying this urgent visit to Erdoğan? Perhaps wary of her falling poll ratings because of her handling of the Syrian refugee crisis, Merkel has added that talks with Turkish leaders would not “tie cooperation on the refugee issue to Turkey’s future membership to EU.”
So, forgetting frequent European criticism of Erdoğan’s “autocratic tendencies” - accusing him of ignoring the radical Islamist threat in Syria and slamming the government over attacks on press - Merkel will show up in Ankara with a proposal essentially saying “keep the refugees in Turkey, in camps if possible, and we will pay for it.” Does she expect the Turks not to tie the issue to their possible future with the EU?
It seems that the reaction within Germany to Merkel’s welcoming of Syrian refugees has recalled memories of former crises, like cancelling Germany’s nuclear energy scheme overnight and investing German taxpayers’ money to save the Greek economy. There are still two years before federal elections, but Merkel wants to contain the fire and make a proposal to Erdoğan at a time where his political future is set to be voted on - even more than Davutoğlu’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Parti).
Assuming that Merkel has sorted out all the conflicts within the 28-member Union on refugees, found the money she thinks will be enough for Turks to stop the refugees by Greek and Bulgarian borders, and will have the authority to speak on behalf of the EU on Oct. 18, will Erdoğan or Davutoğlu accept her proposal? Will they accept it just because they will be honored with Merkel’s visit only two weeks before the election?
I am not so sure. PM Davutoğlu said on Oct. 15 that without visa-free travel for Turkish citizens within the Schengen countries, Turkey would not approve of the re-admission agreement with the EU. For the last few weeks, particularly after Erdoğan’s visit to Brussels at the height of the refugee influx to Europe, both Erdoğan and Davutoğlu have been making remarks about their efforts to push European leaders for visa-free travel for Turkish citizens. Therefore, Ankara is naturally tying the refugee situation to EU membership.
It might make sense for Erdoğan to give the good news to Turkish citizens that, thanks to his efforts, they can travel to Europe without visas, with the possibility of turning this news into votes on Nov. 1, especially from Turkish voters living in Europe. Turkish voters in Europe are a key battleground between the AK Parti and the Kurdish problem-focused Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP).
Assuming that Merkel will have the authority to promise on behalf of the EU to transfer refugee funds to Turkey and lift limitations on the visa regime, will she be able to deliver? Or will she ask Erdoğan first to agree to the plan, announce it, and then ask for time to get her side approved by other EU leaders, after the Nov. 1 election?
How should we interpret Merkel’s sudden recalling of Turkey’s importance? Should we think her coming to Erdoğan’s palace in Ankara - which has been much criticized in Germany as well as the quality of Turkey’s democracy - (yet she will meet with Erdoğan in Istanbul according to recent information) is just an example of hypocrisy? Could this be German national interests above all, über alles?