August 20, 2018
... and a subtle shift in EU policies towards both Russia and Turkey
We don't want to overplay the meeting this weekend between Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin. They are talking again. There is no progress on some of the most difficult issues in Russian-European relations, most importantly Ukraine, but Merkel recognises that a permanent isolation of Putin is potentially dangerous and not in her best interest.
The issue that has brought a change in Merkel's position is Syria. Her continued reign in Berlin is critically dependent on the absence of another refugee crisis. As Putin reminded her yesterday at Meseberg, there are now 5m Syrian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey - a potentially massive burden for the EU. FAZ puts the costs to rebuild Syria at $400bn, a sum way beyond the financial capacity of Russia. Syria is giving Russia diplomatic leverage.
We broadly agree with the analysis in FAZ this morning by Markus Wehner, who writes that there is no real thawing in the bilateral relations but merely a renewed readiness to talk. The pictures of Merkel and Putin drinking mineral water around a garden table at the spartan Schloss Meseberg near Berlin contrasted with the much warmer reception Putin received in the Austrian province of Styria where he attended the wedding of Karin Kneissl, the foreign minister. Wehner writes there were political reasons for Putin to go to Austria ahead of his meeting with Merkel. One is clearly Austria's rotating presidency of the EU, and the other the country's overt pro-Russian policies.
There is a shift of views about Russia in Germany as well. The Bundestag is more pro-Russian today than it was a year ago. This is not only related to the AfD. The SPD wants a softening in the policies, and so does the FDP.
We see a similar trend in German relations with Turkey - but with slightly different political dividing lines. This morning, Turkey has allowed Mesale Tolu, a German-Turkish journalist, to leave Turkey where she was held under trumped-up charges. The immediate interpretation in Germany was that Turkey was interested in better relations with the EU and Germany in particular, in view of its bilateral political conflict with the US. German politicians were debating over the weekend the conditions for potential financial aid, given the spillovers an economic meltdown of the country would have on the EU. In terms of politics we see a similar pattern in the position of the SPD in particular. Andrea Nahles, SPD chief, has asked for financial aid for Turkey. We noted an interview by Sigmar Gabriel, now a backbencher, also calling for a change in EU policies towards Turkey, warning against isolation of a country on the brink of developing a nuclear arsenal. The view that it was in the EU's best interest to keep Turkey pinned to the western alliance is also shared by the Greens, though not by the FDP. We noted a comment by Alexander Lambsdorff, MEP, who calls on the EU to push Turkey into an IMF programme - which the Turkish government has already rejected. The position of the CDU is more circumspect. We noted one senior CDU MP accepting the idea of financial aid in principle, but only tied to political conditions that will be hard to fulfil.