When Turkish premier Ahmet Davutoglu made an offer in March to take back all migrants crossing to Greece, it stunned Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, and changed the course of Europe’s migration crisis.
It was a surprising political manoeuvre, even more so because Mr Davutoglu had not consulted the most powerful man in Turkey — President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Hurriedly conjured-up in a plane on the tarmac of Brussels airport, Mr Davutoglu’s gambit worked, clearing the way for a historic summit pact that may within weeks win Turks visa-free travel to Europe, a right Ankara has sought for decades.
Yet in spite of the seeming breakthrough, Mr Erdogan has conspicuously distanced himself from the deal, leaving the more pro-EU Mr Davutoglu to shoulder the blame if it falls apart. For the prime minister, the EU terms have become a political test, with people on his team worried that if Europe fails to deliver on its promise of visa free travel by June, his job will be on the line.
“It’s a risk he took, and it has left him exposed,” said one Turkish official involved in the negotiations. A spokesperson in the president’s office said: “We categorically deny that there is any differences of opinion between the president and the prime minister on this issue. Turkey expects the European Union to honor the March 2016 agreement – the question is whether Europe will keep it’s word.”
Mr Davutoglu privately raised the issue ten days ago when Ms Merkel and senior EU officials visited a refugee camp in Gaziantep, southeastern Turkey. According to two senior officials familiar with the conversation, he said his political survival was at stake if Europe failed on its visa pledge.
A spokesman for the prime minister strongly denied any such exchange. “Linking the Turkey-EU visa deal to the political process in Turkey is completely baseless,” he said. “If EU side doesn’t fulfil its obligations then the agreement won’t be applied . . . it’s not an issue of Turkish politics.”
During the Gaziantep visit, Mr Davutoglu basked in his personal relationship with Europe’s leaders, wishing happy birthday to Donald Tusk, European Council president, and revealing that he exchanged text messages with Ms Merkel regularly. Missing from the whole affair was Mr Erdogan.
The two men have worked closely for almost a decade. When Mr Erdogan became president, he handpicked Mr Davutoglu as his successor and once lightheartedly compared their relationship to that of Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent and his renowned architect Sinan, who transformed 16th century Istanbul.
But since Mr Erdogan became president, there has been near-constant speculation over a rift. Signs of tension between a prime minister straining for independence and a politically powerful president impatient to bolster his constitutional powers are increasingly being aired in public.
During a recent appointment to the governorship of the Central Bank, they compromised, choosing a candidate that both placated the markets with his stated focus on inflation, and cut interest rates, a particularly important subject for Mr Erdogan.
But Mr Davutoglu has sometimes appeared lukewarm on Mr Erdogan’s desire to amend the constitution and create a strong executive presidency. He notably sparred with Mr Erdogan over pre-trial detention for academics.
The friction has fanned alarm in Mr Davutoglu’s camp that Mr Erdogan may seek to replace him at their AK Party congress in the autumn. Nasuhi Gungor, a pro-Erdogan journalist, caused a stir in Ankara late last month by arguing the AKP “could not go on” with Mr Davutoglu and a “two-headed” administration. “Erdogan is playing a political game with him,” said one senior European diplomat.
Mr Erdogan has already curbed some of Mr Davutoglu’s powers. On Friday, the AK Party stripped the prime minister of the ability to choose local and provincial leaders, a key source of influence, and a point of contention between Mr Davutoglu and those ministers considered loyal to Mr Erdogan. While Mr Erdogan is not technically a member of the AKP, (he is supposed to be neutral as president), he retains control over the party.
Europe has been one area where Mr Davutoglu, a softly spoken academic-turned-politician, has sought to make his mark, leaving Mr Erdogan in the dark at various points over the past six months of talks. “There were some incidents where Erdogan was not in the loop,” said one senior EU official who has been in negotiations with both men.
Mr Erdogan’s publicly stated view of the European deal has been lukewarm. Early on, he told reporters that Mr Davutoglu should return from a trip to Brussels with “the money”. Last week, he dismissed the June deadline for the visa deal as irrelevant.
For European leaders, dealing directly with Mr Davutoglu also has the advantage of not having to deal with Mr Erdogan, who is seen as increasingly authoritarian as he prosecutes journalists, harries Kurdish opposition leaders and berates the west for lecturing him on human rights.
Some senior EU officials fear his recent bellicose statements — sometimes timed to coincide with summit negotiations — are in part intended to “provoke” the EU and “sabotage the deal”. Others are becoming impatient with threats from Ankara: Johannes Hahn, EU enlargement commissioner, has called on Mr Erdogan and others to “disarm the language”.
Diplomats working with Ms Merkel say she knows the deal in part rests on “keeping Mr Erdogan happy”. Still the bloc has a lot riding on Mr Davutoglu, a man they see as a moderating influence on Mr Erdogan’s authoritarian instincts.
“In refugee policy, we co-operate with quite a few countries which are not the Eldorado of democracy,” Martin Schulz, European Parliament president told Bild Ann Sontag in April. “And we have made the pact, not with Mr Erdogan, but with the Turkish Republic.”
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