Chancellor Merkel’s Untimely Visit to Turkey

October 18, 2015

Struggling to cope with a massive influx of refugees, most of them crossing over to Greek islands from Turkey’s Aegean towns and cities, the EU was bound to seek some accommodation with Turkey. Needless to say this is “a massive influx” by European standards; massive enough to bring Chancellor Merkel to Istanbul.

In order to judge the timing of Chancellor Merkel’s trip to Istanbul one should remember the controversial visit PM Netanyahu paid to Washington in early March this year. Mr. Netanyahu’s visit constituted a breach of protocol because an invitation to a head of state or government can be extended by no other official than his or her counterpart, who is the head of state or government of that country. In this case, it was House Speaker John Boehner who had invited Mr. Netanyahu to visit Washington without properly consulting the White House. He was wrong to do that and the Israeli prime Minister was wrong to accept the invitation without seeking President Obama’s agreement. That was the “invitation aspect” of the problem, but there was more to be said.

Since the visit was to take place only two weeks before the Israeli elections, President Obama refused to meet PM Netanyahu by referring to a “long-standing practice and principle” by which the president does not meet with heads of state or candidates in close proximity to their elections. Indeed, President Obama would have been right not to see him even if Mr. Netanyahu’s intention had been to lobby for the Iran nuclear deal.

Chancellor Merkel’s visit was no doubt arranged on her initiative to which the Justice and Development Party (JDP) government responded positively. So there was no breach of protocol there. But the visit took place exactly two weeks before Turkey’s controversial second parliamentary election in less than four months. So, the choice of the date was wrong. The fact that this was just a half-day “working visit” which took place during a critical period to address the urgent problems of hundreds of thousands refugees stranded under unfavorable conditions does not change that.

With regard to the refugee crisis Chancellor Merkel recently said, “… we have a very disorderly situation at the moment, and we need more order and more control…” On the one hand, for Europe’s de facto leader to knock on Turkey’s door asking for her contribution to establishing “order” constitutes a contradiction because at present Turkey herself is suffering from a multitude of disorders, prominently among them polarization, terrorism, political gridlock and gloom. On the other hand, it should be recognized that Germany was probably the most reserved EU country on Arab Spring meddling and yet she is bearing the brunt of the refugee problem.

Media reporting on endless EU summits on the refugee problem gave a rather good sense of what this visit could be about. The joint press conferences Mrs. Merkel held with PM Davutoğlu and President Erdoğan have confirmed those earlier reports. The EU is desperate to stem the flow of refugees. It is prepared to provide Turkey with funds to improve their living conditions, education and employment opportunities in Turkey and thus drastically reduce and regulate the number of those reaching Europe. The EU may also be prepared to ease visa requirements for Turks wishing to travel to Schengen countries. It may consider putting Turkey on its list of “safe” countries. And finally, the EU may even agree to open a negotiation chapter or two to create the impression that Turkey’s accession process is back on track. The problem is that none of this would reflect any good faith on the part of the EU countries. To start with most of them never really wished to see Turkey join the Union. Chancellor Merkel herself recently reiterated that she was against Turkey’s accession. And now that Turkey has willingly become part of the Middle East chaos and created growing mistrust about its commitment to democratic rule, their objections appear to be vindicated. All they want is a “deal” to stop the influx of refugees. The only question is “at what price?”

The JDP government must have seen the Merkel visit as a much needed boost to its internal and international standing during a period it proudly calls “precious loneliness”. In reality the expression only coins its dismal foreign policy record. Its initial response to what some consider as an “indecent proposal” by the EU will be dictated solely by election considerations to be followed by hard bargaining.

The truth of the matter is that both the EU and Turkey misread the Arab Spring. They contributed to the turmoil in their own ways. The JDP government believing that President Assad was on his way out extended the opposition every imaginable support including an open invitation to Syrian refugees. Since Turkey shares a 900 km. border with Syria this miscalculation has proved to be extremely costly. Now, thanks to Turkey’s open doors/porous borders policy the EU is becoming a neighbor to Syria also. For EU member states this is a nightmare from which there is no quick waking up…

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