The Odd Couple: Merkel, Tsipras Fate Tied to EU Refugee Deal

EU Leaders Tackle Refugee Crisis
  • Shared German, Greek interest at EU summit in curbing influx
  • Both have `track record of pragmatism,' says Teneo's Nickel

When Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras traveled to Tehran last month, he carried a joint message worked out with an unlikely ally: German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

In meetings with Iranian leaders, Tsipras pressed for measures to encourage a million or more Afghan refugees currently in Iran to stay there, according to two officials familiar with the diplomacy. Both he and Merkel regard steps to control the influx of Afghans -- the second-biggest group entering Europe after Syrians -- as a key element of plans to tackle the refugee crisis that’s dividing Europe, the people said, asking not to be named because the discussions were private. Neither knows if the joint plea to Iran will yield results, they added.

QuickTake Europe's Refugee Crisis

The coordinated approach in Iran, made exactly a year after Tsipras opened his premiership with a call for wartime reparations from Germany, illustrates how far both leaders have traveled from opposing sides of Europe’s debt crisis to a common need to overcome the refugee crisis. As they joined fellow European Union leaders Monday at an emergency summit on migration, last month’s Tehran diplomacy also underscores the shared imperative to control arrivals to their respective countries as other governments balk at shared responsibilities and throw up barriers to refugees.

“We now have this peculiar situation where they’re relying on each other,” said Aristides Hatzis, a professor of law and economics at the University of Athens. Until recently, “we had a very different picture of Merkel,” he said. “Now the Germans are our allies.”

With Greece the main port of call and Germany the destination of choice, each leader is under increasing domestic and international pressure to find a European resolution before the arrival of warmer weather brings an anticipated pickup in refugee numbers. That makes Merkel and Tsipras the leaders with most at stake during the summit with Turkey.

Along with aiding Greece from a 700 million-euro ($767 million) war chest, summit goals include further steps in enlisting Turkey to stem the flow of refugees from Syria, with specific projects to draw on 3 billion euros the bloc has pledged. The 28 leaders will also take stock of progress on strengthening the EU’s outer borders, notably including Greece’s coastline.

Tsipras, whose government warned of a humanitarian disaster on its territory after refugee transits were stopped at its northern frontier with Macedonia last month, met with Merkel Monday morning before the main summit. There was common ground that shutting borders is an unacceptable action and should not be celebrated in the final statement, according to a Greek government official who asked not to be identified discussing the content of the private talks.

“This can’t be about closing things,” Merkel told reporters later, referring to efforts to reduce the number of refugees “not only for a small number of countries, but for all countries, including Greece.” That requires a solution with Turkey, she said.

German Elections

For Merkel, elections in three German states March 13 mean she needs concrete signs of progress to show voters that Germany’s stance on refugees can be humanitarian but not endlessly so. For Tsipras, the flow of refugees across the Aegean to Greece adds to his difficulty in holding together a fragile coalition while adhering to the terms of a third aid program that is showing signs of yet another impasse.

“Last summer it was keeping the euro zone together, and now it’s about keeping Schengen together,” said Carsten Nickel, an analyst for consultancy Teneo Intelligence, referring to Europe’s passport-free zone. Merkel “has a pragmatic track record” and “there’s also a track record of pragmatism on his side,” Nickel said. “It goes to show how quickly things can change.”

Both Merkel, 61, and Tsipras, 41, are benefiting from building up trust during the debt crisis and talk regularly, according to a person familiar with the chancellor’s strategy who asked not to be named discussing government matters. Merkel helped persuade Tsipras this month to accept EU aid rather than having Greece try to cope with the refugee crisis alone, the person said. She’s also easing up on pressure for Greece to meet the bailout terms, which include a pension reform, without giving up on the principle that it has to do its homework, according to the person.

Euro-area finance ministers are due to discuss Greece when they hold a regularly scheduled meeting in Brussels, also on Monday.

Twitter: Alexis Tsipras on Twitter

“Europe doesn’t want to add further fuel to the general climate of uncertainty,” Dimitris Drakopoulos, co-head of economics research for Europe, Middle East and Africa at Nomura International, said in an interview.

‘Unfair’ Criticism

Not so long ago, the two leaders were at loggerheads after Tsipras won power by channeling frustration with years of austerity that Greeks blamed primarily on Germany. Whereas his predecessor, Antonis Samaras, beat a path straight to Berlin as soon as he took office, Tsipras took nine weeks to make his inaugural visit, instead touring Rome and Paris seeking to build an anti-austerity alliance that ultimately foundered.

Fast forward a year and Merkel is sticking with Tsipras even while facing opposition to her refugee policy from the same faction inside her party bloc that opposes bailout aid to Greece. Tsipras rushed to her defense during a Feb. 29 interview with Athens-based Star TV, saying that criticism within Germany of the way Merkel handled the refugee crisis is “unfair.” She is not to blame for the influx of people fleeing war and poverty, he said.

Twitter: Alexis Tsipras on Twitter

The following day, Merkel said at a news conference in Berlin that Europe needs to stand by Greece and that she’s in “constant contact” with Tsipras. “The Guardian Angela of Refugees” ran the March 2 headline in a newspaper affiliated to his Syriza party.

German Defense

It’s not all a love-in. Merkel used a weekend newspaper interview to press Greece to make up a backlog in its goal of setting up shelter for 50,000 asylum seekers fleeing Syria and the Middle East by the end of 2015. She also pledged European help to do so.

The shifting alliance isn’t lost on Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble, who clashed last year with his then-Greek counterpart, Yanis Varoufakis, during the standoff over a third bailout, and is now party to his government’s drive to accommodate Greece.

“Greece is suffering a terrible lack of solidarity by a lot of European member states,” Schaeuble told an audience in London last week. “The only European state that’s defending Greece in these very days -- it’s quite interesting -- is Germany, in the migration issue.”

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