Turkish-German Pact: EU Split by Merkel’s Refugee Plan

Photo Gallery: Merkel's Crucible

By Horand Knaup, , René Pfister and 

On a recent windy Saturday morning, António Rocha heads out to sea off the north end of the Greek island of Lesbos in accordance with his mission: securing the maritime border between Greece and Turkey. Rocha, a 52-year-old officer with the Portuguese coast guard, steers his ship, the Tejo, into the meter-high waves with the two 350-horsepower engines whining in protest. Rocha stands at the helm, legs spread wide for balance, and scans the sea for inflatable rafts full of refugees. “Only a lunatic would head out today,” Rocha says. Lunatics or, to be more precise, the desperate. And there are plenty of those these days.

Rocha and his three crewmembers have only been active in the area for a few weeks, patrolling on behalf of the Europeanborder protection agency Frontex, but the things they have seen in that short amount of time have already proven emotionally challenging. On one occasion, Rocha stopped a drastically overloaded inflatable raft with desperate mothers holding their babies over the gunwale so that they might be saved first.

One thing, though, that Rocha and his shipmates haven’t yet seen is a boat being turned back by the Turkish coast guard. “Sometimes they motor around the refugee rafts and tell them they should turn around,” says the Greek liaison officer onboard the Tejo. “But when nothing happens, the Turkish boats just leave.”

That isn’t good news for the German chancellor, who is heading to Brussels next Thursday to meet with her European partners and with Turkey to discuss possible solutions to the refugee crisis. Ankara is the most important building block in Angela Merkel’s strategy, which is why Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Dovutoglu has been invited to the summit of European leaders.

In the current situation, however, Merkel’s cards are not particularly promising. Since the beginning of the refugee crisis, Brussels has been operating under a new set of rules: Germany, with its power and money, is not able to determine policy on its own. Instead, Merkel is reliant on the understanding and goodwill of the rest of Europe.

Full of Unknowns

Merkel has promised the Germans that she will reduce the number of refugees coming to the country and has pledged that 2016 will not see a repeat of the million migrants who arrived last year. But she hopes to achieve that goal without closing off European borders and suspending the Schengen border-free travel regime. That is what makes the situation so complicated: The only hope of Merkel’s plan working is if she can find a coalition of the willing to accept refugees.

As such, the summit is full of unknowns — and it has been further complicated by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s bombing campaign in Aleppo, Syria, which has driven tens of thousands of people to the Turkish border. Merkel has asked Ankara to offer the desperate masses protection, but Turkey is already sheltering more than 2 million Syrians. And the more that come, the greater is the temptation to simply wave them through to Europe.

Merkel also has plenty of trouble back home as well. The Christian Social Union (CSU), Merkel’s nominal allies from Bavaria, have begun speaking of the chancellor as though she were a potentate, against whom resistance is a primary duty of German citizens. Recently, CSU head Horst Seehofer spoke of the “rule of injustice” in reference to Merkel’s refugee policy. One is tempted to dismiss the statement as typical CSU blustering, but Seehofer, as a coalition partner in Merkel’s government, must also give his approval to Merkel’s plan to take a predetermined number of refugees from Turkey should Ankara seal off its maritime border with Greece. And the tone of his rhetoric does not make it seem as though he is in the mood to make Merkel’s life any easier.

There are reasons to fear that the upcoming summit could be the scene of unprecedented conflict. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is adamantly opposed to Merkel’s pact with Turkey and, together with some Eastern European allies, is trying to stop the refugee flow by any means necessary. And there are plenty within Merkel’s conservatives, and some within the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) as well, who are secretly crossing their fingers on his behalf.

“We have to close off the Balkan route,” says Axel Schäfer, deputy floor leader for the SPD in federal parliament. “Those in Europe who want to maintain open borders must also be able to close borders.” Merkel, though, is doing what she can to consolidate her remaining allies and is planning a kind of special summit in the run-up to next Thursday’s meeting in Brussels.

Theory versus Practice

The nucleus of Merkel’s plan is an offer to take a predetermined number of refugees each year — a range of between 200,000 and 300,000 is currently making the rounds in the Chancellery. They would then be distributed throughout Europe, with every member state required to take refugees from the Middle East in accordance with its size and capabilities. Ideally, all of those who sought to make their way from the Turkish coast to the Greek islands on their own would be turned back to Turkey. They could then decide whether to apply to be included in the quota bound for Europe or to return to their homeland.

That, at least, is the theory.

In practice, though, Merkel has made very little progress towards this goal. Since October, she has negotiated with the Turkish government six times, most recently on Monday. But there is little indicating that success is imminent. On the one hand, Turkey would like the quota plan to act as a kind of pressure-release valve. The country is currently sheltering 2.5 million refugees and Ankara would like to send all newcomers onward to Europe as part of the quota plan. But that would contradict Merkel’s aim of providing European partners with a clear ceiling on the number of refugees the EU would accept as a way of limiting the flow.

On the other hand, Turkey is demanding that the refugees who are allowed to travel onward to Europe are not just chosen from among those already in Turkey, but also from a buffer zone on the Turkish-Syrian border. The Chancellery, however, is opposed to that idea because officials believe the demand is part of a Turkish strategy to secure international assistance in its efforts to infringe on Kurdish areas in Syria. The Kurds are currently fighting for their own independence in northern Syria. Still, bargaining leverage would seem to be in Ankara’s hands, as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is perfectly aware. “We can open the doors to Greece and Bulgaria anytime and we can put the refugees on buses,” Erdogan told European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and European Council President Donald Tusk in November, according to a secret protocol of their discussion that was published earlier this week by the Greek news site Euro2day. On Thursday, Erdogan confirmed the authenticity of the document.

Either way, Merkel’s plan would only work if the Turkish police were to stop migrant smugglers from sending refugees across the Aegean to Greece — and Ankara hasn’t seemed particularly interested in the task. But even if Turkey wanted to, securing its Aegean coast line, which stretches for hundreds of kilometers, would be an enormous task. “Forget it,” Turkish EU Ambassador Selim Yenel told the Guardian this week when asked about Merkel’s refugee plan. “It’s unacceptable and it’s not feasible.”

On a recent windy Saturday morning, António Rocha heads out to sea off the north end of the Greek island of Lesbos in accordance with his mission: securing the maritime border between Greece and Turkey. Rocha, a 52-year-old officer with the Portuguese coast guard, steers his ship, the Tejo, into the meter-high waves with the two 350-horsepower engines whining in protest. Rocha stands at the helm, legs spread wide for balance, and scans the sea for inflatable rafts full of refugees. “Only a lunatic would head out today,” Rocha says. Lunatics or, to be more precise, the desperate. And there are plenty of those these days.

Rocha and his three crewmembers have only been active in the area for a few weeks, patrolling on behalf of the Europeanborder protection agency Frontex, but the things they have seen in that short amount of time have already proven emotionally challenging. On one occasion, Rocha stopped a drastically overloaded inflatable raft with desperate mothers holding their babies over the gunwale so that they might be saved first.

One thing, though, that Rocha and his shipmates haven’t yet seen is a boat being turned back by the Turkish coast guard. “Sometimes they motor around the refugee rafts and tell them they should turn around,” says the Greek liaison officer onboard the Tejo. “But when nothing happens, the Turkish boats just leave.”

That isn’t good news for the German chancellor, who is heading to Brussels next Thursday to meet with her European partners and with Turkey to discuss possible solutions to the refugee crisis. Ankara is the most important building block in Angela Merkel’s strategy, which is why Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Dovutoglu has been invited to the summit of European leaders.

In the current situation, however, Merkel’s cards are not particularly promising. Since the beginning of the refugee crisis, Brussels has been operating under a new set of rules: Germany, with its power and money, is not able to determine policy on its own. Instead, Merkel is reliant on the understanding and goodwill of the rest of Europe.

Full of Unknowns

Merkel has promised the Germans that she will reduce the number of refugees coming to the country and has pledged that 2016 will not see a repeat of the million migrants who arrived last year. But she hopes to achieve that goal without closing off European borders and suspending the Schengen border-free travel regime. That is what makes the situation so complicated: The only hope of Merkel’s plan working is if she can find a coalition of the willing to accept refugees.

As such, the summit is full of unknowns — and it has been further complicated by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s bombing campaign in Aleppo, Syria, which has driven tens of thousands of people to the Turkish border. Merkel has asked Ankara to offer the desperate masses protection, but Turkey is already sheltering more than 2 million Syrians. And the more that come, the greater is the temptation to simply wave them through to Europe.

Merkel also has plenty of trouble back home as well. The Christian Social Union (CSU), Merkel’s nominal allies from Bavaria, have begun speaking of the chancellor as though she were a potentate, against whom resistance is a primary duty of German citizens. Recently, CSU head Horst Seehofer spoke of the “rule of injustice” in reference to Merkel’s refugee policy. One is tempted to dismiss the statement as typical CSU blustering, but Seehofer, as a coalition partner in Merkel’s government, must also give his approval to Merkel’s plan to take a predetermined number of refugees from Turkey should Ankara seal off its maritime border with Greece. And the tone of his rhetoric does not make it seem as though he is in the mood to make Merkel’s life any easier.

There are reasons to fear that the upcoming summit could be the scene of unprecedented conflict. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is adamantly opposed to Merkel’s pact with Turkey and, together with some Eastern European allies, is trying to stop the refugee flow by any means necessary. And there are plenty within Merkel’s conservatives, and some within the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) as well, who are secretly crossing their fingers on his behalf.

“We have to close off the Balkan route,” says Axel Schäfer, deputy floor leader for the SPD in federal parliament. “Those in Europe who want to maintain open borders must also be able to close borders.” Merkel, though, is doing what she can to consolidate her remaining allies and is planning a kind of special summit in the run-up to next Thursday’s meeting in Brussels.

Theory versus Practice

The nucleus of Merkel’s plan is an offer to take a predetermined number of refugees each year — a range of between 200,000 and 300,000 is currently making the rounds in the Chancellery. They would then be distributed throughout Europe, with every member state required to take refugees from the Middle East in accordance with its size and capabilities. Ideally, all of those who sought to make their way from the Turkish coast to the Greek islands on their own would be turned back to Turkey. They could then decide whether to apply to be included in the quota bound for Europe or to return to their homeland.

That, at least, is the theory.

In practice, though, Merkel has made very little progress towards this goal. Since October, she has negotiated with the Turkish government six times, most recently on Monday. But there is little indicating that success is imminent. On the one hand, Turkey would like the quota plan to act as a kind of pressure-release valve. The country is currently sheltering 2.5 million refugees and Ankara would like to send all newcomers onward to Europe as part of the quota plan. But that would contradict Merkel’s aim of providing European partners with a clear ceiling on the number of refugees the EU would accept as a way of limiting the flow.

On the other hand, Turkey is demanding that the refugees who are allowed to travel onward to Europe are not just chosen from among those already in Turkey, but also from a buffer zone on the Turkish-Syrian border. The Chancellery, however, is opposed to that idea because officials believe the demand is part of a Turkish strategy to secure international assistance in its efforts to infringe on Kurdish areas in Syria. The Kurds are currently fighting for their own independence in northern Syria. Still, bargaining leverage would seem to be in Ankara’s hands, as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is perfectly aware. “We can open the doors to Greece and Bulgaria anytime and we can put the refugees on buses,” Erdogan told European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and European Council President Donald Tusk in November, according to a secret protocol of their discussion that was published earlier this week by the Greek news site Euro2day. On Thursday, Erdogan confirmed the authenticity of the document.

Either way, Merkel’s plan would only work if the Turkish police were to stop migrant smugglers from sending refugees across the Aegean to Greece — and Ankara hasn’t seemed particularly interested in the task. But even if Turkey wanted to, securing its Aegean coast line, which stretches for hundreds of kilometers, would be an enormous task. “Forget it,” Turkish EU Ambassador Selim Yenel told the Guardian this week when asked about Merkel’s refugee plan. “It’s unacceptable and it’s not feasible.”

http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/merkel-refugee-plan-faces-resistance-in-brussels-and-ankara-a-1077131.html#ref=nl-international

Categories: Germany, The Muslim Times

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