Until late in the evening, the visit had gone unusually harmoniously. The meeting between German Chancellor Angela Merkel, EU Council President Donald Tusk and EU Commission Deputy President Frans Timmermans with Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu in Gaziantep felt almost like a family get-together. Davutoglu even brought a cake for Tusk, who had celebrated his birthday the previous day. But at 10 p.m., the conversation turned to the EU liberalization of its visa policy for Turkey. Timmerman asked for understanding: "We as the Commission have to prove that you have fulfilled all the conditions," he said. Otherwise there would be problems with EU member states and the European Parliament.
It was the moment that Davutoglu's expression suddenly darkened. "We have delivered," he had told the group earlier. "The number of refugees has gone down and we now expect the EU to deliver on its commitments and that visa liberalization will happen."
Ankara's logic is simple: Given that Turkey is solving Europe's refugee problem, the country's 79 million people must be provided with visa-free travel to the EU, even if Ankara hasn't yet fulfilled all 72 of the conditions set out by Brussels. That's the price. Europe must turn a blind eye.
It's likely that it will do so. On Wednesday, the European Commission is expected to make a decision on whether to move forward with the visa liberalization process and there is much to suggest the EU executive will decide in favor. During a meeting on Wednesday of this week, members of the Commission agreed that if Turkey fulfilled as many of the 72 conditions as possible between now and then, that it will make a favorable recommendation. Sources with knowledge of the Commission proceedings said the number of outstanding conditions would have to be single digit in number. "The count will take place on Wednesday." So far, Turkey has met around 50 of the demands.
The deal with Turkey, negotiated by Chancellor Merkel, envisions the introduction of visa-free travel for Turkish nationals by the end of June if all goes according to plan. At that point, any Turkish citizen will have the right to travel to the EU and remain here for up to 90 days at a time without needing a visa. If it approves the provision, this would mark the first time the EU has ever made such a recommendation without requiring that all the conditions first be met. In other words, Turkey is in fact being given allowances, despite all claims to the contrary. In March, Merkel had assured that, "The Turks must fulfill all conditions, there will be no exceptions." EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker seconded her in April: "The criteria will not be watered down in the case of Turkey." But so far it hasn't yet.
For Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, visa-free travel is the big prize. To secure it, he has even threatened to allow the refugee deal with the EU to collapse, meaning that Turkey would no longer prevent refugees from making the journey across the Aegean Sea to Greece and the EU. He gave Europe a choice: either the refugees or visa-free travel.
A Wedge Through Europe?
It's a move that has the potential to drive a wedge through Europe, and to ruffle domestic politics in Germany. Many European leaders fear any concessions made by Europe to Turkey could play into the hands of the right-wing populists. The Alternative for Germany (AfD), the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) and France's Front National could take advantage of the issue in order to stir up sentiment against Muslim visitors from the country. It could also jeopardize the current fragile peace between Merkel and Horst Seehofer, the governor of Bavaria and head of the Christian Social Union (CSU), the Bavarian sister party to the Christian Democratic Union. Seehofer has been one of the most powerful and outspoken opponents of Merkel's refugee policies.
"People have woken up to the issue of visa-free travel," warns Stephan Mayer, of the CSU, who is also the domestic policy spokesman for the joint CDU-CSU parliamentary group in the Bundestag. "It's an issue that worries a lot of people. I think there's a threat that the AfD will try to take advantage."
Erdogan himself views the dispute over visa-free travel as a test of his own power. And he's certain that he has the better cards in this game of poker than Merkel and the EU. "The European Union needs Turkey more than Turkey needs the European Union," he said in Ankara earlier this month. Meanwhile, EU Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn of Austria has admonished Turkey to "negotiate, not threaten."
But the Turkish president has never been shy in confrontations with his opponents -- be they the political opposition, the military or the secular opposition. Toughness is his recipe for success. His unwillingness to compromise also helped catapult him to the presidency. This is not one for the kinds of face-saving solutions or ornate compromises that are common in the EU.
For years, the EU had treated Turkey like a supplicant. And now Erdogan is seizing his opportunity to chasten Europe's leaders, Merkel first and foremost. There have been plenty of examples, too. In Dresden, the director of the Dresdner Sinfoniker orchestra has claimed that Turkey's delegation to the EU tried to strong arm the European Commission to defund a concert planned for Saturday commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide. Then there is the case Turkey is bringing against German satirist Jan Böhmermann for insulting Erdogan. Finally, there's Erdogan's battle against journalists who are critical of the Turkish leader. This year again saw certain foreign journalists prevented from remaining in the country. All of these incidents clearly demonstrate that Erdogan isn't ready to adjust to European standards. And now the president of the Turkish national parliament, Ismail Kahraman, is calling for an Islamic constitution for the secular country. In Turkey, said Kahraman, a member of Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP), "there is no place for secularism."
The question now is how far Europe is willing to go in its self-denial. It's likely the European Commission will provide an answer next week. "It's not possible for Turkey to fulfill the criteria 100 percent. We know that," says one German official with knowledge of the negotiations. The official says the situation will not ultimately be black or white -- it will be gray. "It's like when you tell your kids that you will take them on vacation if they great straight A's," says another EU diplomat. "Are you really going to cancel if they get a B?"
But what if there is also an F or two in there? One of the points of contention is a Turkish anti-terror law so broadly defined that it makes it possible for Erdogan to go after anyone he decides to label as a terrorist, even journalists who report critically about him. Inside the European Commission, some believe this law gives a "blank check" to Turkish security agencies to do as they please. Parts of Turkish law are also inconsistent with the European Convention on Human Rights.
Even in Ankara, many doubt that anything will change fundamentally in the coming weeks. Ertugrul Yacinbayir, the country's former deputy prime minister, says the government has no interest in undertaking a reform of the anti-terror law. "They will never implement all of the EU's conditions," he says.
Erdogan's strategy is that of agreeing to many of the conditions. But he has done little in a few, decisive areas. It is a course of action he hopes will make it as difficult as possible for the Europeans to turn away from their visa pledge. When a 20-person EU delegation traveled to Ankara to negotiate the details of the visa deal, around 60 well-prepared Turkish specialists were waiting for the Europeans. They addressed issues like combatting corruption and altering laws against money laundering. For the last four days, there has even been a daily video conference between Commission representatives and Turkish government experts in order to clarify problems.
Even critical EU diplomats readily admit that Turkey has in fact moved forward with a number of draft laws. In its last progress report on visa liberalization for Turkey in March, the Commission reported that "a number of important steps forward" had been made. And this week, a long-awaited letter arrived confirming, for example, that Iraqis and Afghans who are returned from Greece to Turkey are now able to submit applications for international protection. "We have implemented almost all conditions," says Selim Yenel, Turkey's ambassador to the EU. "We want the agreement to be implemented in its entirety and for all Turkish citizens."
At public appearances, Erdogan leaves no doubts about his expectation that visa-free travel will be implemented in June. The president plans to keep to his word, having pledged visa-free travel to voters. He can ill afford a failure on the issue. "Erdogan is prepared to go as far as he has to," says Metin Corabatir, president of the Research Center on Asylum and Migration (IGAM) in Ankara. "If the EU rebuffs Turkey, then the deal will be history. Then Erdogan will hardly be willing to serve as Europe's doorman."
The issue of visa-free travel for Turks is also a political hot potato for Merkel domestically. It could re-escalate delicately patched over differences she has with the CSU's Seehofer over her refugee policies. The CSU opposes visa-free travel and Seehofer has recently been making sure that everyone knows it. In an interview with the Bayernkurier, a newspaper that serves as the party's mouthpiece, the politician said he could only warn against it, saying that visa-free travel might lead to the importation of "internal Turkish problems" to Germany.
It's sentiment shared by Bavarian Interior Minister Joachim Hermann, likewise with the CSU. "In my opinion, the unlimited free entry of Turks and Kurds to Germany is indefensible for security reasons," he says. Hermann sees a danger "that the Turkish-Kurdish conflict will be imported and carried out on German soil."
The critical voices aren't restricted to the CSU; they can also be found in Merkel's own CDU. The party's domestic policy expert in parliament, Wolfgang Bosbach, for example, notes that the federal government had "always rejected" visa-free travel for Turks "because it feared a considerable increase in irregular migration, and not without reason, particularly in light of the critical situation in the Kurdish regions." From the perspective of security, he says, visa freedom is problematic.
Will Visa Waiver Bring Influx of Turks?
Interior Ministry officials in Berlin fear that the lifting of the visa requirement will lead to a massive spike in the number of Kurds applying for asylum here. Visa-free travel would give them the ability to take a normal flight to Germany as a tourist and then submit their asylum requests once they land -- applications that in many cases would have a good chance of success. There are already 11,000 Turkish nationals living in Germany after having been provided with asylum due to state persecution at home. If President Erdogan continues to escalate the conflict with the Kurdish population in southeastern Turkey, that number could rise even further.
Fears also persist in Berlin that the policy will result in an influx of poverty migrants from Turkey who will go off the grid and make ends meet with under-the-table jobs rather than leaving after 90 days as stipulated under the visa-waiver program.
Gareth Jenkins, a prominent British expert on Turkey, believes that a substantial number of Turks would come to Europe and either apply for asylum or disappear into the underground economy, especially in Germany and the Netherlands, where so many Turks have relatives. There are already 400,000 internally displaced refugees within the Kurdish regions of Turkey as a result of the civil war-like conditions there. Many are dirt poor, Jenkins says, "but whether by finding it themselves or borrowing it from others, even they would be able to find enough money to get a passport and pay the 70 to 80 it costs for a one-way flight on a budget airline from Turkey to Germany."
It's not just the potential increase in the number of Turks entering Germany that frightens CSU politicians. They also fear that the issue could help to further elevate the right-wing populist AfD. Reservations about a visa waiver for Turks among the German population are significant. A poll taken in March found that 49 percent of Germans reject the initiative. Gunther Krichbaum, the chairman of the federal parliament's European Affairs Committee, fears that the debate will unsettle Germans. "The people are paying very close attention to what is happening right now," he says. "The EU's credibility is at stake."
The Bundestag, though, doesn't have the power to stop the visa-waiver plans. It must be approved by the European Council, the powerful EU body that represents the leaders of the 28 member states, and by the European Parliament, but not by the German parliament. But Manfred Weber, the group leader of the Christian Democrats in the European Parliament, is calling for just that. "Given the importance, especially for Germany, it would surely be good if the government in Berlin were to underpin the refugee treaty with a decision by the Bundestag, including any possible visa liberalization," he says.
In order to assuage critics, the German government is advocating a "snap-back mechanism." Germany and France distributed the proposal among their EU partners on Thursday. The mechanism would stipulate that the visa waiver program could be suspended if it turned out that large numbers of Turkish citizens were fleeing to Europe in order to apply for asylum or to illegally immigrate. There are "justified fears" of such a scenario, German government sources say.
The German view is that this emergency brake should be sufficient to persuade those with lingering doubts on the European Council and in the European Parliament, where members never had much enthusiasm for the deal with Turkey in the first place. "The chancellor has made herself vulnerable to blackmail through the Turkey deal," warns Alexander Graf Lambsdorff, a member of Germany's Free Democratic Party and a European parliamentarian. He says he would have preferred to see the visa-waiver applied in stages, first to researchers or businesspeople, for example.
There is also resistance in the European Council. Austria and France are currently having to do battle with strong right-wing populist parties, and their enthusiasm for letting Turks travel to Europe without visa restrictions is accordingly slight. Hungary and Poland are also opposed.
It remains unclear whether some kind of emergency brake will suffice to bring around the opponents in the European Council. Because for as long as the EU is dependent on Ankara on the refugee issue, Europe will hardly be in a position to pull that brake -- assuming that Erdogan even accepts such a brake in the first place.
By Christiane Hoffmann, Peter Müller, Ralf Neukirch, Maximilian Popp, Christoph Schult and Wolf Wiedmann-Schmidt