Trade-offs and refugees

Trade-offs and refugees

The gilded thrones may have been the perfect expression of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s sultanic ambitions but they appeared to make his guest, Angela Merkel, somewhat uncomfortable judging by the customary photographs.

Maybe the German chancellor was thinking that such a lavish setting was not appropriate for discussing the fate of thousands of people whose only surviving assets are their bodies, their children and whatever dollars or euros they have managed to save up to pay their traffickers.

Maybe Merkel, as she sat in the kind of showy opulence that usually reveals something deeper, was thinking that she was being used by the Turkish president as a propaganda tool, that her presence in Istanbul just a few days before elections in Turkey was giving Erdogan a powerful boost. Particularly at a time when the Turkish government is facing so many accusations: of waging war against the Kurds and brushing off every proposal for a peace settlement in a bid to appeal to those who want authoritarian rule; of racism and intolerance; of persecuting its political rivals; and of quashing free speech by cracking down on “unorthodox” journalists who don’t propagate the Erdogan narrative.

Merkel cannot be unaware of all this, and even if her own advisers failed to brief her 100 Turkish university professors did in an open letter.

Let us accept that on a mission during which she was not just representing Germany but the European Union as a whole, Merkel decided to strike a concessionary tone for the sake of the issue at hand: the protection of the refugees, or, rather, the stemming of the flow of refugees.

The idea is that the refugee influx will abate not as a result of peace in Syria but by convincing Turkey to be more vigilant of its borders, to accept the creation of camps on its territory where refugees can be identified and documented and to grant passage to Europe to those who are deemed eligible for refugee status. It is a technical solution to a political problem; ergo, no solution at all.

Turkey, naturally, did not just demand financial remuneration for its cooperation. It asked that its own people be given easier to access to Europe. And it got it. It asked that its European accession be speeded up even though it has fulfilled only a handful of the 40 criteria. And it was promised this would happen by the most powerful voice in Europe: the German one.

And what about the refugees? If only they had been the main topic of discussion at that meeting. Instead, they will keep drowning. And if the complex war in Syria continues unabated, even the winter will not prevent them from trying to get across.

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