Just days after Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Berlin for a conference on Libya, German Chancellor Angela Merkel touched down in Istanbul to meet her Turkish counterpart. The aim of the visit was to discuss both bilateral relations and regional issues affecting Germany and Turkey.

“High on the agenda of the talks will be Turkey-EU (European Union) relations, Turkey’s EU accession process, updating of the Customs Union and visa liberalization within the context of Germany’s Presidency of the Council of the EU starting from July,” explained a January 23 press release from the Turkish Presidential Office.

Starting off with photo ops and symbolic rhetoric about bilateral cooperation at the inauguration of a joint German-Turkish university, the visit soon turned towards serious matters, particularly the issue of migration. 

Migration Tensions Are Building

In 2016 a deal was struck between the EU and Ankara to stop the flow of migrants within its borders for a price tag of $6.6 billion, but that has not panned out in the most amicable manner. In fact, last Thursday, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu blamed the EU for not holding up its end of the bargain. “Now it is 2020 and we still have not received the first €3 billion in its entirety,” Cavusoglu said.

Another part of the deal stated there would be a reexamination of Turkey’s potential accession into the EU and there seems to be no sign of that either. Making the issue even more complicated, the attitudes of Turkish citizens have also drastically changed since the uptick in suicide attacks in the country, for which many blamed refugees from Syria and elsewhere, giving rise to xenophobia. The situation has forced the government to find a solution to its migration problem. 

Ankara’s plan to protect its borders, however, has been rather unique and isolationist. Instead of integrating migrants into the mainstream, it has announced to relocate them into a safe zone in northern Syria. 

Erdogan’s Grand Migration Plan

“We plan to resettle 2 million people along the 30 kilometer deep safe zone which we will create in the area between the Euphrates River and the Iraqi border, including Manbij,” Erdogan said in October last year, around the same time as his forces launched an offensive against the Kurds in that area. “We will settle people in 50 towns with a population of 30,000 each and 140 villages with a population of 5,000 each,” Erdogan added.

The total project is estimated to eventually cost some $27 billion and would be completed with the help of the international community but the check is way bigger than what the EU promised or what the Turkish economy can reasonably support. While some have characterized Ankara’s ambitions as an attempt to change the region’s demographics, Merkel had starkly different comments during her visit. “I can imagine this would be the kind of humanitarian project for which we could provide German funds,” she was quoted as saying. 

Germany’s Domestic Political Considerations On Negotiating Migration With Turkey

Whether Merkel’s accommodating statement represents her actual opinions or is it a matter of political compulsion, the fact remains that Ankara seems to have gotten Berlin on board by hook or by crook. For quite some time, Erdogan has threatened to unleash migrants to Europe if his demands aren’t met, so much so that it has become his cynical trump card. 

On the other hand, Merkel is faced with a weak government that took months to forge a ‘grand’ coalition in Germany. It doesn’t help either that the largest opposition party in the Bundestag is Alternative für Deutschland, which is known for its xenophobic views and strong repulsion towards migrants, especially Muslims fleeing wars in the Middle East. At the same time, the UNHCR claims that the number of refugees entering Greece from Turkey has jumped lately. To top it all off, a recent YouGov poll found that over 30% of German voters prefer an early election.

While local issues obviously top the list in terms of citizens’ grievances, Germany has witnessed a mass change of attitude towards migration. After the 2015 refugee crisis when Berlin opened doors to those fleeing wars in the Middle East and faced backlash from smaller states, especially in the east, the EU has been forced to adopt a more conservative approach towards migration. A series of terrorist attacks have also occurred in the country and the EU since then that have put Merkel on her back foot and weakened her political position. It therefore comes nowhere as no surprise that Merkel has finally given in to the pressure from Erdogan, and more importantly, her internal political opponents. 

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