Angela Merkel has held six meetings with the Turkish government in the hopes of forging a solution to the refugee crisis. But with most of the leverage in Ankara, progress has been slow. Worse yet, Berlin’s plan has split the EU into two rival camps.
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 European border 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.”
Looking for Successes
NATO warships are soon slated to begin patrolling the Aegean to help locate smugglers who ship migrants to the Greek islands. That, at least, represents a small success for Merkel, given that Greece and Turkey have long been unable to even agree on the exact coordinates of the maritime border. Now, though, the two NATO allies have agreed to allow the alliance to patrol the seas between them. Still, it is completely unclear as to whether that will slow the influx of refugees in any meaningful way. The NATO ships, after all, have not been tasked with stopping refugee boats themselves.
Small successes aren’t going to be enough for Merkel to get the public and political support she needs. And this winter has made it clear that the refugee influx isn’t going to go away by itself. “Even with a substantial fall … in January, the figures remain high for the winter months as compared to previous years,” notes a Commission report released on Wednesday. In January, 60,000 people arrived in Greece, hardly a number that Merkel can sell to the German people as a triumph.
Plus, for the quota solution with Turkey to receive approval in Germany, Merkel needs support from other European countries. CSU head Seehofer has made it clear to the chancellor that he would reject the plan were Germany stuck sheltering the refugees from Turkey on its own.
Merkel is fully aware that she won’t be able to count on broad European support for her plan. The Chancellery has identified 13 countries that might be open to joining such a coalition of the willing: countries like Luxembourg, Austria, Sweden and the Netherlands. A pre-summit meeting with her supporters is to take place in the Austrian representation in Brussels.
The fact that it is even taking place underscores how deep divisions are in Europe right now. Indeed, Merkel and her willing have plenty of opponents within the bloc, a whole series of countries that fundamentally reject the idea of accepting any refugees at all. “Quotas only increase incentives for migration,” says Slovakian Foreign Minister Miroslav Lajcák, for example.
‘Averting the German-Turkish Pact’
Merkel’s opponents have gathered around Hungarian Prime Minister Orbán, who was against Merkel’s policies from the very beginning and who accused the German chancellor of “moral imperialism” last September. Orbán, along with Slovenian Prime Minister Miro Cerar, are not interested in entering into complicated negotiations with Turkey and they certainly are not intending to approve any solution that might mean their countries would have to take in Muslim refugees. “One of the most important tasks in the upcoming period is that of averting the German-Turkish pact,” Orbán reportedly said on Wednesday during a meeting with parliamentarians from his right-wing national party Fidesz.
Orbán and his allies have begun implementing a plan that stands in direct contradiction to Merkel’s proposal. They want to assist Macedonia in completely closing its border to Greece as a way of blocking the refugee trail through the western Balkans.
Macedonia is not a member of the EU, but Hungary and other countries have already sent 80 officials to the country to assist with closing the border. At a meeting of the Visegrád Group — which includes Eastern European EU members — planned for next Monday, Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia are to discuss ways in which the Balkan route can be closed off for good. Slovakian Foreign Minister Lajcák says he doesn’t want to provoke a confrontation with the German chancellor with the plan. “But as long as there is no joint European strategy, it is legitimate for countries along the Balkan route to protect their borders. We are helping them do so.”
From Merkel’s perspective, the Eastern European plan has immense shortcomings. The number of refugees would surely plunge, initially at least. But the chancellor is concerned that Greece would slide into chaos as a result if tens of thousands of refugees were to bottleneck there. One concern is that Russia is just waiting for such a scenario so it can then offer financial assistance to Athens as a way to divide Europeans a tiny bit more.
Plus, it is unclear how sustainable such a border closure might be. Experience has shown that refugees quickly find new routes as old ones are blocked. In this case, the route via Albania and Italy looks like a possible alternative.
A Profound Embarrassment
It is unlikely that even Merkel believes that next week’s summit will deliver a breakthrough. Time is working against her. Chancellery officials have taken note of the fact that Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziére is losing his patience and is demanding a rapid reduction of the refugee flow. “Time is running out,” he warned in a SPIEGEL interview at the end of January. Merkel’s aides understood de Maizière’s message to mean that, if the Turkish plan didn’t pan out, then Germany’s borders would have to be closed.
CSU head Seehofer agrees. Following the commotion resulting from his comment about the “rule of injustice” — commotion significantly informed by periodic German debates as to whether communist East Germany was an “unjust state” — Seehofer has backed off. “You have to be quite malicious to interpret my words as an accusation that the chancellor was leading an unjust regime,” he told SPIEGEL. “I didn’t say that and that isn’t my opinion. We stand behind the chancellor.”
Seehofer plans to wait for the outcomes of a trio of German state elections on March 13 before deciding whether to implement his previous threat to take Merkel’s refugee policies to Germany’s Constitutional Court. He doesn’t want to be the scapegoat if the right-wing populist party Alternative for Germany makes significant gains and Merkel’s Christian Democrats take large losses.
But the threat itself has maneuvered him into a difficult spot: The court imposes a deadline of six months for filings relating to disputes between states and the federal government. The key question is: six months from when? If one takes the date of Merkel’s decision to open the German border to refugees trapped in Hungary, then Sept. 4, 2015 is the decisive date. That would mean that Bavaria would have to file by March 4, an awkward date from Seehofer’s perspective. On the other hand, after all the uproar Seehofer triggered with his threat, simply allowing the deadline to pass would be a profound embarrassment.