Merkel Caught Out as Erdogan Threatens to Ax Refugee Deal

Government Holds Cabinet Retreat

Angela Merkel leads a meeting at Schloss Meseberg on May 24.

Photographer: Sean Gallup/Getty Images
  • Erdogan volley lands as German cabinet holds two-day retreat
  • Chancellor flummoxed as refugee decline fails to lift party

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s latest salvo at the European Union came when Angela Merkel least expected it.

The German chancellor was winding up the first day of a two-day cabinet retreat at a Baroque schloss near Berlin when Erdogan threatened to tear up the central plank of Turkey’s refugee accord with the EU. Coming just 24 hours after he and Merkel met during a UN conference in Istanbul, the volley caught the government off guard with the chancellor pushing back only on Wednesday after the conclave ended.

“More time will be needed,” Merkel told reporters outside the government’s Meseberg chateau. Turkey hasn’t met the EU’s 72 conditions that would allow a lifting of visa requirements for Turks and “I’m not worried” since both sides appear ready to continue talks, she said.

Erdogan’s ability to control the flow of migrant crossings to Europe is causing Merkel almost as much of a domestic headache as last year’s refugee crisis. While the deal is working -- arrivals in Germany have slowed to a trickle -- public disillusionment over Merkel’s dealings with an ever-more unpredictable ruler is compounding her struggle against a populist challenge.

Where’s the Bounce?

Chancellery officials in Berlin are concerned that the reduced influx hasn’t led to improved poll numbers for Merkel or her governing Christian Democrat-led bloc, according to two people familiar with the chancellor’s thinking who asked not to be identified discussing strategy. Coupled with the weakness of the Social Democrats, the worry in the German capital is that she may struggle to retain her coalition partner if she contests and wins the 2017 election.

The humbling of the so-called grand coalition of Germany’s two main Volksparteien is a sign that Germany is losing its immunity against right-wing populism that’s swept Britain, France, the Netherlands and most recently Austria. One German official said that the anti-establishment mood at large among Europe’s voters is now a threat to all forces at the political center.

For more on the fallout from Austria’s presidential election, click here.

As latest polls put support for the anti-immigration Alternative for Germany party, or AfD, at an all-time high of 12 percent, Merkel’s bloc matched an almost four-year low of 33 percent reached in April. While the chancellor’s faction and the Social Democrats won a combined 67.2 percent in Germany’s last federal election, the total has now dwindled to 53 percent, according to Forsa polling.

“The rising support for the AfD shows that Germany is no longer different than the rest of the euro zone or Europe,” said Carsten Brzeski, chief economist at ING-Diba AG in Frankfurt.  Now it’s Germany’s turn to face the reality that “the rise of populist parties makes it harder to form coalitions,” he said by e-mail.

Add constant sniping against Merkel’s open-border refugee policy by the Christian Social Union, her Bavarian ally, and the chancellor has her hands full to keep her coalition on track.

Fourth Term?

And yet that probably makes her more likely to seek re-election, according to a third person, because stepping aside now -- a demand voiced by AfD members -- would be an admission of defeat. The next major venue for Merkel to announce her candidacy would be her Christian Democratic Union party’s annual convention in November.

In the latest response to the refugee crisis that’s dogged Merkel since last summer, her cabinet on Wednesday backed legislation that includes stricter requirements for asylum seekers to integrate into German society. The chancellor said the plan is “a milestone” in her effort to move forward.

For now, Merkel is pushing to keep on track the EU’s refugee deal with Turkey, the linchpin of her strategy to slash the number of refugees arriving in Germany, after last year’s record influx of about 1 million sparked the AfD’s rise. In an interview published Sunday with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung, she said that she understood criticism of the accord, but added that “what irritates me is that it sometimes looks almost as if people are looking forward to it failing.”

Erdogan added to that impression on Tuesday, saying the EU wasn’t keeping its word on financial aid and shouldn’t constantly impose criteria on Turkey in return for pledged visa-free travel for Turkish citizens. Otherwise, he said, Turkey’s commitment to accepting refugees back from Greece wouldn’t go ahead.

“We can tolerate it up to a point,” Erdogan said. “If it continues like this, a law on readmission won’t come out of parliament.”

Collapse of the refugee deal would risk fanning support for Alternative for Germany. As the party draws voters away from established parties, that’s fueling speculation that the CDU -- still the biggest party in all national polls -- may seek other alliances with established parties to shut out the AfD after next year’s election. Possible combinations could include the Green Party, a CDU partner in three of Germany’s 16 state governments, or the Free Democrats, a pro-market party that polls suggest may re-enter parliament next year.

Merkel caught the dilemma of government as it faces up to the populist surge.

“Unemployment used to be the central issue,” she said in the Sunday newspaper interview. “Now it’s our security or our relationship with Islam.” While trumpeting some of her administration’s achievements, she conceded: “These processes need time.”

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