Brussels Briefing: Back to Turkey

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Once more to the breach, dear friends. Angela Merkel will be back in Turkey today for her second visit in five months. To put this in perspective, the German chancellor had been twice in five years before the migration crisis hit. And it is only five days since she last met Ahmet Davutoglu, the Turkish premier. This is urgent business.

Turkey is the lynchpin of Ms Merkel’s migration strategy and it is floundering. Even with rough seas, arrivals to Greek islands are still running at roughly 2,000 a day. With spring (and German state elections) approaching, there are just weeks left to avert a migration surge that forces Ms Merkel’s hand. That would leave November’s EU deal with Turkey – including bold promises of visa liberalisation and €3bn in funding – all but stillborn.

It took a while, but the penny has dropped in Ankara. Senior Turkish officials realise the window for action is closing. They have made progress on paper, with measures like a law on Syrian work rights. But they understand only numbers matter now. Expect more high-profile police crackdowns on smugglers. What the EU also wants are tougher measures to stop Europe-bound migrants entering Turkey from places like Morocco.

Ms Merkel’s purpose, though, is primarily political. She needs Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s president and political kingpin, to get the message too. Until now he has remained aloof, largely leaving the migration agenda to Mr Davutoglu (and occasionally bristling when kept out of the loop). But his buy-in is essential.

EU diplomats who have met him recently say he appears more supportive, even accommodating. But it isn’t showing in public. Only this weekend Mr Erdogan mocked Europe’s sudden “panic” over a migration crisis that Turkey has fought with “patience and great stoicism” for five years. For now, at least on migration, he holds the upper hand. But the pressures on him – Syria, a stand-off with Moscow, and tensions with the west over his battle with Kurdish separatists – are steadily building.

The backdrop of this is even greater misery in Syria. Tens of thousands of refugees are moving towards the Turkish border as Syrian regime forces encircle Aleppo, once the country’s biggest city. European politicians are asking Turkey to open its eastern border to the thousands of refugees amassing there, while at the same demanding its western border is tightly sealed. Mr Erdogan will relish needling this hypocrisy, and what Europe thinks it means for a country he says is already hosting 2.5m Syrian refugees and 300,000 Iraqis.

What we’re reading

Ukraine seems to be nearing a turning point. Two punchy editorials argue the sclerotic reform effort could cost the country dear, endangering what is left of its freedom and independence. The FT calls it Ukraine’s “last chance”, pleading with the pro-European elite to give up “the greed, feuding and rent-seeking”. The Kyiv Post says the West may have to play hardball and “cut off their aid”. With ceasefire violations rising, the Washington Post asks whether Vladimir Putin isserious about ending the war (and like this Crisis Group report, concludes he ishedging his bets). Fergal Keane, meanwhile, sends the Irish Independent an eloquent dispatch from Ukraine’s frontline, including an arresting quote summing up the region’s experience of history as “merely a succession of traps”.

Tracking money is one theme of the day. The Guardian reports the European Commission is leaning towards requiring all multinationals to disclose tax and profit payments on a country-by-country basis. Only banks and extractive industries are forced to do this at present and Pierre Moscovici, the Commission’s tax chief, is assessing an extension to all sectors. To better monitor dodgy financial flows, Peter Sands, the former head of Standard Chartered bank, instead calls for the abolition of high-denomination cash, “the currency of corrupt elites”. For similar reasons Germany has been considering a€5,000 limit in its cash-heavy economy. But don’t bet on it happening: cash-loving Bild Zeitung is very unhappy.

Marine Le Pen’s far right National Front was plotting strategy this weekend. It was an opportunity to jettison unpopular, legacy stances weighing on her presidential prospects. In the event, the changes were pretty modest. The NF reaffirmed its anti-euro stance – the policy that most consistently spooks centrist voters. And it didn’t address the issue of changing the party name, a toxic matter within the party. The concession to electoral reality was accepting that Frexit from the eurozone would only happen after a referendum.

On the subject of referendums, the British press had a weekend adding to the torment of Boris Johnson, London mayor, wannabe prime minister and putative Brexiteer. Amid suggestions that he would not lead the leave campaign because he “never wanted to quit the EU”, Mr Johnson’s Telegraph column clarifies things with a resolute homage to fence-sitting. David Cameron, meanwhile, is facing a mini-rebellion among Tory grassroots activists.

If that weren’t enough, the Tory old-guard are also in a lather over the question of WWMD – ‘What Would Maggie Do?’ Charles Powell, longtime foreign policy advisor to Margaret Thatcher, caused the stir after claiming the Iron Lady wouldback Britain remaining in the EU. Cue outrage in deepest Toryland. One counterpunch came from Robin Harris, a former Thatcher aide turned biographer, who denounced Powell’s “astonishing” claims. With Mr Johnson in mind, Matthew d’Ancona by contrast sums up the whole Powell-Thatcher episode as a “useful parable about the limits of political theatre“.

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