With domestic pressure over migration numbers growing, Angela Merkel is the EU leader most eager to engage with Turkey
Angela Merkel may be the last politician standing in favour of a European response to the refugee crisis. At this stage she has no choice but to stick to her policy because a change in Germany’s approach would have massive consequences for the EU. If Berlin were to announce a limit to the number of arrivals (as the Austrian government did), or close the borders to migrants (as Sweden did), Schengen would not survive one week. Like in Sweden or in Austria, the German government has to bring down the number of arrivals in 2016. Merkel might not be able to survive another year if immigration continues at 2015 levels. Unlike most other European countries, Germany has to decrease the number of arrivals through a European scheme, even if Berlin is the only actor following this approach.
For these reasons, Germany will continue to press for a burden sharing arrangement in the EU, knowing full well that many member states will do their best to delay, obstruct or to otherwise avoid implementing relocation agreements. Berlin will also press for more effective controls on the EU’s external borders and for the establishment of hotspots. Decisions on the strengthening of Frontex have been implemented slowly at best, despite some capitals – notably those taking a tough stance on relocation - calling for better control of external borders, which in many cases has provided a pretext for renationalisation. Processing applications at the border, another item on Berlin’s wish list, won’t come before there is agreement among EU members on immigration and asylum.
As part of the same approach, Germany is the member state most eager to engage Turkey. On 22 January formal “government consultations” were held between the two countries for the first time, consisting of a high level meeting of cabinet members from both sides lead by the heads of government. The German federal government has agreed such regular consultations with few other governments. This format, modelled on the Franco-German joint cabinet meetings, had only been only been extended to two other countries in 30 years (Italy in 1977, Spain in 1983). After German unification in 1990, the instrument started to be applied more often (Poland 1997, Russia 1998, Israel 2008, China and India 2011, Netherlands 2013 and Brazil 2015), none of which has been held at the same frequency and continuity as the meetings between Paris and Berlin.
Turkey has now become the 11th country on the list of challenging but significant relationships for Germany’s foreign policy. For the status minded Turkish leadership, this is a most welcome step and an obvious recognition of Ankara’s geopolitical significance. For Turkish President Tayyip Recep Erdoğan and his government, the German move signals a refooting of Turkey’s relationship with Europe, away from the accession track, with its conditionality based on the Copenhagen criteria, and towards a “strategic partnership” that would see Turkey accepted as a power in its own right.
Evidently, Angela Merkel is under pressure in her approach to the bilateral relationship. For as long as the EU’s response to the refugee crisis is divided and ineffective, cooperating with Turkey is her best option to control the flow of migrants into the EU and to Germany. In order to make this happen she went out of her way and paid a visit to President Erdoğan shortly before the last Turkish general elections – a rather unusual step among democratic governments out of respect for the electorate. Germany strongly supported the EU agreeing to send financial support and fast-track the visa liberalisation process in return for a control of the migration from Turkey to Europe. However, this agreement has also been hampered by disputes among EU member states over who will contribute the €3 billion to be paid to Ankara. While Italy has insisted on paying the total amount out of the EU budget, other member states have been slow to come to a decision on their own shares. In their view, the deal mostly benefits Germany – and indeed the German government depends heavily on its implementation – and so it should therefore be funded by Germany. As things stand, Merkel would actually be better off putting up the missing funds than seeing the deal falling apart. This is how far Berlin is willing to go: depending on Turkey as a pivotal partner and a divided and weak EU.
For these reasons, the EU-Turkey deal will most likely take the form of an extended bilateral agreement between Berlin and Ankara. Turkey will use the leverage potential it has to extract attention, parity and money. As much as Merkel may be tempted to take a minimalist approach, conceding to Erdoğan and Davutoğlu only what she needs to, Berlin should do better, for the sake of its own foreign policy and for the benefit of Europe. The fact is that Syria’s neighbours Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan have been bearing a huge refugee burden over the past few years and conditions have worsened for refugees in all three countries, because of high volumes, the underfunding of UNHCR assistance, and weak governance in host countries. The next best thing to engaging in diplomacy to end the fighting in Syria, would be to improve the refugee situation in these countries - this way it could be possible to address the root causes of migration to Europe.
Germany and the EU should not just write out cheques to Turkey, of which the €3 billion would only be the first tranche. Rather, Germany should propose that Turkey provide substantially higher financial assistance than has been agreed as part of a common initiative directed at significantly improving the situation of refugees. This could be done by upgrading camps, providing schooling and vocational training as well as decent medical services and housing. Instead of outsourcing humanitarian assistance to the United Nations or leaving it to neighbouring countries, Europeans need to take matters into their own hands to control the migratory pressure upstream, and to preserve Europe’s normative integrity under the constraints of realpolitik. At the same time, such an initiative would help to balance the concerns over deepening cooperation with a country that runs a highly questionable minority policy and is breaking various norms of pluralist democracies in its internal policies.
Taking this course of action, Europe would be able to launch the sort of major humanitarian operation that it should have done some years back, had policy makers had not lived under the illusion that they could control the externalities of the Syrian war with the conventional tools. Still, upgrading the existing camps and building new ones, managing them jointly with Turkish, Lebanese and Jordanian authorities, and providing extended services to millions of displaced people, requires more than just money. It takes lasting commitment from governments, as well as the engagement of people and organisations on the ground. More than this, it would create political responsibilities for Europeans beyond their immediate self-interests. On the other hand, this might provide a way for Germany or the EU to escape the current dependency on Turkey’s compliance with the terms of a short-term bargain. It is mind-boggling to follow the debates in the EU about ambitious plans for relocation and common border policies while extreme minimalism governs the discourse on other vital issues such as addressing the root causes of migration. Judging by her record, Merkel might opt to take the minimalist option under the assumption that matters might not reach breaking point. She may have concluded, however, that the refugee crisis does not follow the trajectory of the other crises Europe has faced during her time in office.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.