Friday,21 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1293, (28 April - 4 May 2016)
Friday,21 September, 2018
Issue 1293, (28 April - 4 May 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Merkel, Erdogan and Schengen

Angela Merkel’s visit to Turkey put a focus on the benefits Turkey expects from bearing the brunt of the refugee crisis — benefits Erdogan wants to turn to his personal advantage, writes Sayed Abdel-Meguid

Al-Ahram Weekly

Indiscriminate missile fire from Syria into the Turkish border town of Kilis and the dead and wounded civilians it claimed cast a brief shadow over an occasion that authorities in Ankara had wanted to keep as bright and cheerful as a cloudless Anatolian sky.

Contingency plans had been made to ensure that everything proceeded like clockwork. So a slight modification was made in the brief programme of the European delegation headed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Kilis was removed from the refugee camp tour, which was restricted to a larger and less remote camp at Gaziantep.

In any case, the change was probably more convenient from the security standpoint, and ultimately did not spoil the day. Proof of this could be seen in how impressed Turkey’s European guests were at the reception they received in the camp where young Syrian refugee women, arranged in a tidy row, presented them with flowers as piano music played in the background.

Even the famously “iron-willed” Merkel appeared deeply moved as she noted the great numbers of refugees that Turkey has hosted and stressed the need for the EU to fulfil its responsibilities in return. She also called for the creation of “safe zones” inside Syria, near the Turkish border, to accommodate the refugees and vowed to work to realise this. This was not an insignificant development. Ankara has been lobbying for months to acquire US and UN approval for such arrangements with no success.

European Council President Donald Tusk, for his part, was effusive. Turkey is the “best example in the world of how to treat refugees”, he said, adding, “No one has the right to lecture Turkey on what to do.”

Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, as he basked, was encouraged to state that his country had fulfilled all its obligations under the migrants deal with the EU. His government was issuing work permits to the refugees and, contrary to rumours, it was not returning refugees to Syria against their will.

Alluding to the approximately 7 billion Euro assistance package that the EU has pledged, he said that the EU will also fulfil its obligations to the refugees. That money will not be paid to his government, he stressed, but rather to its intended recipients. He simultaneously reminded his guests that Ankara has already incurred more than $10 billion in expenses from hosting the refugees.

But behind the celebratory facade and despite the European sighs of relief at the relative ease-off in the waves of refugees, trouble still lurks, especially on the matter of visa-free entrance for Turkish citizens into Schengen states.

First, Merkel’s visit has met with considerable opposition at home where questions have been raised regarding the legality of the agreement with Turkey, in accordance with which refugees not qualified to obtain the right to asylum in Greece are to be returned to Turkey which, according to human rights groups, is not a safe place for refugees to be returned to.

Second, June is rapidly approaching and this is when the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) promised Turks that they will be granted visa-free access to Schengen countries, as per the agreement signed with the EU on 18 March and that went into effect in April. Fearful that the EU will back down on that part agreement, Ankara has warned that if the Turks do not obtain visa-free entry the deal is off.

What Davutoglu and other Turkish officials failed to mention is that Ankara has only fulfilled 35 out of the 72 benchmarks it needs to meet to win the visa exemption. Merkel did bring this matter up while she was in Turkey as though to remind Ankara that the clock is ticking. In fact, on 4 May, the EU Commission is supposed to consider the Turkish request for visa-free entry to the Schengen region. It is highly doubtful that Ankara will be able to meet the remaining criteria by then.

Although Turkey may have its sights set on more distant goals, such as reopening its EU accession bid, the visa question is particularly urgent for the powers that be in Ankara. In the context of a domestic climate rife with crises, controversies and political rivalries and intense animosities, a victory on this question would bring with it great advantages.

Davutoglu will be able to boast a momentous accomplishment that he scored by virtue of his tenacious and brilliant negotiating acumen. This, in turn, will boost his prestige and influence, not only with respect to opposition parties but, more importantly, within his own party, and especially in the power struggle that has been fiercely raging beneath the surface between himself and the president.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, for his part, will also rush capitalise on a victory on the Schengen visa question, for which he will modestly take credit. Davutoglu cannot compete in the massive propaganda machine that marches to Erdogan’s drum and that endlessly trumpets his many feats and achievements. As for the ends to which Erdogan intends to use this particular feat, that could not be more obvious: his project to amend the Turkish constitution in his drive to secure absolute power.

This point, in particular, leads to the third reason why trouble may lay ahead for Ankara’s plans. Advocates of civil liberties and human rights in Turkey, Germany and elsewhere have accused Merkel and European leaders of turning a blind eye to Erdogan’s systematic clampdowns on freedom of opinion and expression and rewarding him with visa-free Schengen entrance.

Critics contend that he will use this to advance his dictatorial ambitions as he steps up the repression of all criticism — and not just inside Turkey but also abroad, as has just occurred in the case of the German comedian who is to be brought up on the charge of insulting Erdogan.

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