October 19, 2015 / 7:59 AM / 2 years ago

Merkel's embrace of Turkey draws criticism in Germany

German Chancellor Angela Merkel (L) meets with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan in Istanbul, Turkey, October 18, 2015. REUTERS/Tolga Bozoglu/Pool

BERLIN (Reuters) - German Chancellor Angela Merkel drew criticism on Monday for embracing Turkey to enlist its support in the refugee crisis.

Berlin’s leftist and Green opposition accused her of meddling in a Turkish election campaign while her conservative Bavarian allies warned against any attempt to revive Ankara’s stalled EU membership bid.

Merkel traveled to Istanbul on Sunday and met President Tayyip Erdogan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu in what some German media described as a desperate attempt to stem the tide of mostly Syrian refugees that has hit her popularity at home.

Top-selling German newspaper Bild plastered a large picture of Merkel and Erdogan sitting on golden thrones and laughing with each other, two weeks before Turkey holds a parliamentary election. The headline read: “Who gains most from the chancellor’s Turkey trip: Merkel or Erdogan?”

A longtime opponent of Turkish EU membership and critic of Erdogan’s crackdown on opponents and the media, Merkel now sees Turkey as a crucial partner in reducing the number of refugees reaching Europe.

Merkel told a news conference with Davutoglu that stalled talks between Ankara and Brussels should be injected with new dynamism. She also signaled her readiness to loosen visa requirements for Turkish citizens, grant Turkey so-called “safe country” status in the asylum process and explore allowing Turkish leaders to attend EU summits.

None of these steps was under consideration in Berlin before the refugee crisis deepened. The willingness to offer safe-country status and accelerate accession talks represent outright policy reversals, although German officials played that down.

“How high is the price for Turkish cooperation?” conservative daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung asked in an critical editorial.

Germany is a favored destination for refugees fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East and Africa and the government expects 800,000 to a million new arrivals this year. Many Germans feel the country cannot cope with the record influx.

Conservative allies and left-wing opposition parties alike questioned her concessions, underscoring her dilemma.

Gerda Hasselfeldt, a moderate within the Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU), hit out at Merkel’s readiness to revive Turkey’s EU bid, long a taboo for German conservatives.

“We shouldn’t make too many concessions to Turkey: joining the EU is not on the agenda,” Hasselfeldt told daily Die Welt.

Cem Oezdemir, co-leader of the Greens party and himself the son of Turkish immigrants, said: “Erdogan is not the solution to the problem. Rather it the policies that he stands for that are behind this migration wave.”

Other politicians criticized Merkel for not taking the time, so close to a Nov. 1 general election, to meet with Turkish opposition parties, calling her visit a campaign coup for Erdogan’s ruling AKP party.

German officials said that Merkel’s tight schedule had made a meeting with opposition parties difficult to arrange.

A new poll from INSA on Monday showed support for the chancellor’s conservative bloc at a 2-1/2 year low of 37 percent and the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, which advocated a hard line on immigration, up at a seven-month high of 7.5 percent.

Writing by Noah Barkin and Caroline Copley; Editing by Paul Taylor

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