Feeling squeezed.

Photographer: Adem Altan/AFP/Getty Images

Merkel Is at the Mercy of Putin and Erdogan

Marc Champion writes editorials on international affairs. He was previously Istanbul bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal. He was also an editor at the Financial Times, the editor-in-chief of the Moscow Times and a correspondent for the Independent in Washington, the Balkans and Moscow. He is based in London.
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You have to feel for German Chancellor Angela Merkel. As the de facto head of the European Union, she has lately found herself trying to negotiate the region's future with the autocratic leaders of Europe's two big neighboring powers -- first Russia, now Turkey -- and increasingly at their mercy.

Merkel was for a long time President Vladimir Putin's interlocutor on behalf of not only the EU, but also the U.S. At a point during the Ukraine crisis, though, she stopped volunteering. She realized Putin was lying to her and saw her as an opponent to be outmaneuvered and undermined. She turned to unifying the EU around a policy of isolating Putin and his regime, through sanctions.

The situation with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is a little different. Unlike Russia, Turkey is at least nominally a candidate for EU membership and, unlike with Putin on Ukraine, there is a deal to be made with Erdogan on refugees. Still, he is playing Putinesque hardball to get what he wants.

Minutes of the negotiations between Erdogan and the dual presidents of the European Union institutions, Donald Tusk and Jean-Claude Juncker, last October were leaked on the Greek website euro2day.gr on Monday. They resemble bargaining at an Istanbul carpet bazaar, without the tea or charm. The European Commission declined to comment on the authenticity of the minutes. Since their veracity has gone unchallenged by any of those quoted and paraphrased, the notes from the meeting are worth reading.

Tusk gets the ball rolling by saying the deal is for the EU to give Turkey 3 billion euros ($3.37 billion) over two years in exchange for a reduced flow of refugees towards the EU, but that he now heard Turkey wanted 3 billion per year:

Erdogan asked whether the proposal would be for 3 billion or 6 billion. When Juncker confirmed the 3 billion, Erdogan said that Turkey didn't need the EU's money anyway. "We can open the doors to Greece and Bulgaria anytime and we can put the refugees on buses." If you say 3 billion for two years, no need to discuss further. Greece got more than 400 billion euro during euro crisis.

When Tusk points out that the Greek bailout wasn't just for Greece, but the whole euro area, Erdogan interrupts, saying that this deal is about saving the Schengen Area of free travel, another European project, like the euro. He goes on:

So how will you deal with refugees if you don't get a deal? Kill the refugees?

Tusk says the EU can make itself less attractive to refugees, but that's not the solution we want.

Erdogan says that the EU will be confronted with more than a dead boy on the shores of Turkey. There will be 10,000 or 15,000. How will you deal with that?

Then they tussle over an annual, unflattering progress report on Turkey, whose publication EU leaders delayed until after November's elections to facilitate the refugee deal. Erdogan dismisses the report as irrelevant to his party's success in the vote and in any case insulting, at which point Juncker asks why Erdogan himself requested the delay in publication, if that was the case. The conversation goes from testy to bad-tempered.

Erdogan claims the EU has "mocked" Turkey for 53 years by first not letting it seek membership, and then pretending to negotiate accession. Juncker points out that for part of that time Turkey wasn't a democracy, meaning it was ineligible:

Erdogan says neither were Germany and the U.K., which lead to a great war. Nor Greece, Portugal, Spain etc. And Juncker shouldn't compare Turkey with Luxembourg. "Luxembourg is just like a town in Turkey."

Clearly irritated, Juncker complains that -- contrary to Erdogan's apparent resentment at being mistreated by Europe -- "we have treated you like a prince in Brussels":

Erdogan says "like a prince? Of course. I'm not representing a third world country."

Erdogan says "Of course I would have done the same. But don't smear it in my face." (Turning to Tusk) "I represent 80 million people. Talk like that from Juncker is disrespectful."

When Erdogan accuses the EU of being unserious about its offer of membership to Turkey, or says that "you just want us to keep the refugees," he is of course right. And the EU is essentially trying to bribe Turkey into solving its refugee problem for it, so price matters. But the hostile nature of the negotiation is telling. It hasn't yet produced the win-win result Merkel may need to survive politically, as the backlash against her open refugee policy mounts in Germany, and the EU begins to fracture along its internal borders. This is why she went on Monday to visit Erdogan in Turkey, paying homage for the second time in four months.

Under the refugee deal, Erdogan was supposed to stop the flow of Syrian refugees headed towards Europe and above all Germany. That hasn't happened. So far this year, 71,000 asylum seekers have made the first leg of the journey from Turkey to Greece, 30 times as many as the same period last year, when the human torrent had yet to really start. In exchange, Turkey was supposed to get money and an accelerated consideration of its application for Turks to travel visa-free to the EU. Little has materialized.

If that was the whole problem, Merkel could easily negotiate the agreement to fruition. But there's more to it. In dealing with the two big powers on the EU's eastern borders, Merkel is caught in a vise between irascible autocrats, neither of whom shares the EU's ideas of democracy, and both of whom want to upset the post-World War II status quo in Europe and the Middle East.

Putin is unlikely to stop bombing along Turkey's Syrian border as Merkel demanded on Monday, because not only does it further his goals in Syria, but by creating hundreds of thousands more refugees it will serve his aims in Turkey and Europe, too. The chaos will destabilize two foes, Erdogan and Merkel, and set Europe against itself, potentially ending its unified stance against Russia on everything from sanctions, to gas pipelines, to Ukraine.

Erdogan, meanwhile, will squeeze Germany's Chancellor for all he can, and not just cash. Turkey's president wants support for his agenda in Syria -- in the leaked minutes he talks about how EU money should have been used to set up the buffer zones he has long been trying to persuade the West to help create in Syria, to no avail. There is a strong case that buffer zones would have helped in Syria, but they would also blur the Turkish-Syrian border, whose legitimacy Erdogan and his government routinely question. He also mentions Turkey's fight against Kurdish terrorists, in which he wants to include Syrian Kurdish fighters allied to the West.

As the Turkish political scientist Soli Ozel told me, "This isn't a relationship of cooperation, it's a ransom negotiation."

Merkel's political future may be in the hands of two leaders who, though now at loggerheads, have far more in common with each other than with her, in terms of democratic values, geopolitical aims and personal style. It is not a good place to be.

(Corrects date of Turkish election in paragraph 11.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Marc Champion at mchampion7@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Therese Raphael at traphael4@bloomberg.net