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Part of the job description of any political leader is to do your best to make it look like you get along with people who you actually can’t stand. But when does that willingness to grin and bear it boomerang and make a leader look weak for not standing up for his or her principles?
German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s lightning visit to the Turko-Syrian border on Saturday, where she roundly praised Turkey’s willingness to take in millions of Syrian refugees, was just the latest example of the effort she is prepared to make to sustain the EU’s fragile deal with Ankara on returning asylum seekers from Greece. Her problem is that, try as she might, Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is going out of his way to make it as hard as possible to be nice to him.
The heart of the problem is Mr Erdogan’s hair trigger when it comes to feeling insulted, slighted or provoked. From the beginning, Ms Merkel has had to deal with manifold criticisms from human rights groups about the refugee plan and doubts over Turkey’s status as a safe country to send people back to from Greece. But repeated rows pitting Mr Erdogan’s tendency to take legal or diplomatic action against critics versus the EU’s fundamental principle of free expression are threatening to overshadow the refugee crisis itself.
Hours after Ms Merkel got back on her plane on Saturday, Dutch journalist Ebru Umar was arrested in western Turkey and forbidden from the leaving the country, in a matter linked to some tweets she sent criticising Mr Erdogan. Ankara has apparently also just lodged a complaint about an EU-funded concert project involving the Dresden Symphony Orchestra that addresses the Armenian genocide. And the Turkish consulate in Rotterdam recently asked Turkish groups in the Netherlands to report any “derogatory” remarks they hear about the Turkish president.
Ms Merkel may not be the only EU leader wrong-footed by the Turkish embrace; before he departed Turkey, Donald Tusk, the European Council president who traveled with the German chancellor, declared, “Turkey is the best example in the entire world of how to treat refugees.” But Mr Tusk also took Mr Erdogan to task for his approach to the press. Noting that he had been jailed for speaking out against the Soviet-era Polish regime, Mr Tusk advised Mr Erdogan to develop a “thick skin”.
Unlike Mr Tusk, though, Ms Merkel is in a more awkward position because she is the Turkey deal’s architect and biggest promoter. This weekend’s contretemps comes on top of the hotly contested case of German comedian Jan Böhmermann, who faces criminal charges after Ms Merkel allowed a German prosecution to proceed when Mr Erdogan took offense to a satirical poem. Ms Merkel has described the poem as “deliberately hurtful” (words she has since regretted). Things took a turn for the (even more) bizarre when the head of the German Pirate party was arrested at a rally outside the Turkish embassy in Berlin this weekend after quoting from the same poem. This raises the question of how many syllables can be uttered from it before someone has broken the law in Germany.
The result is that that a migration deal that was supposed to buy Ms Merkel some political peace at home is actually causing more political dissent. It’s a riddle the chancellor appears unable to solve: once you have tethered your political future to Mr Erdogan, how do you avoid becoming his apologist?
What we’re reading
Austria became the latest country to feel the political reverberations of the EU refugee crisis on Sunday as the country’s far-right Freedom party won an unexpectedly big victory in the first round of Austria’s presidential election. Overnight results showed the party’s candidate, Norbert Hofer, took 36.4 per cent of the vote, far outstripping his rivals, after running a hardline anti-immigration campaign. Austrian daily Die Presse called it the “biggest success” in the party’s history, and reports Mr Hofer will face the Green party’s Alexander Van der Bellen in the runoff; the candidate from the Social Democratic party of Chancellor Wener Faymann finished in a tie for fourth. Germany’s Die Welt sees the result as a warning for Ms Merkel.
To find an election going the EU’s way, one has to go outside the EU: Serbia’s pro-EU governing party consolidated its position as the country’s dominant political force by taking about half the vote in yesterday’s national elections. In its coverage, the Wall Street Journal notes the victory comes despite an upsurge in support for the ultranationalist Serbian Radical party. But Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung calls the victory “massive”, noting returns were still coming in and an outright majority was possible; the Radicals were running a distant third.
It’s not just Mr Erdogan who has run into trouble in Berlin. Another world leader Ms Merkel has had an occasionally awkward relationship with is Barack Obama. But the US president went out of his way to praise Ms Merkel’s handling of the refugee crisis upon arrival in Hamburg yesterday, telling reporters that she, along with the German people, had taken a “courageous stand” on the issue “perhaps because they themselves once lived behind a wall.” Mr Obama, however, has been more guarded in his assessment of the EU-Turkey deal, telling Bild newspaper that it was a step forward – but that it is important to ensure respect for migrants’ human rights when applying the accord. The two leaders vowed to speed up negotiations for an EU-US trade pact, the New York Times reported.
Greece is edging closer to a deal on a way forward for its €86 billion eurozone bailout this week, with negotiators seek to hammer out the final elements of a deal on economic reforms before a tentatively-scheduled meeting of eurozone finance ministers Thursday. Negotiators from the EU and International Monetary Fund returned to Athens over the weekend, seeking to identify another €3.6bn of fiscal measures that the country would enact if it starts missing the programme’s deficit targets. The preparation of these “contingent measures” was a key plank of a deal struck by finance ministers in Amsterdam on Friday that could clear the way to signing off a review of the Greek programme that has dragged on for months. At stake is whether aid payments can resume, an increasingly pressing issue as, without more support, the country risks defaulting on debt repayments it must make in July.
For Brexiters, Mr Obama’s visit to the UK last week was the sum of all fears. First came a starker warning than anyone expected from the US president about the dangers to Britain of leaving the EU. Then London mayor Boris Johnson went slightly off the reservation with ill-judged comments about Mr Obama’s Kenyan ancestry. Then came a surprise sucker punch from Hillary Clinton. Brexiteers had gleefully noted Mr Obama is a “lame duck” who won’t have any say on the relationship between a post-Brexit UK and the US. This rearguard action took a serious dent yesterday from comments made to the UK’s Observer newspaper by Jake Sullivan, a Clinton foreign policy adviser, who said his boss “has always valued a strong United Kingdom in a strong EU. And she values a strong British voice in the EU.” Ted Cruz, the Republican presidential candidate, was far less supportive, however, telling the Breibart news site that Mr Obama was undermining bilateral relations.