Vicken Cheterian

Turkey, the European Union and the refugees

There was a time when liberals, democrats, and reformers in Turkey looked towards the European Union (EU) for inspiration, and as a stimulus for positive change within their country. The March 7 summit between EU and Turkey revealed that those days are revolved. Now, it is Turkey shaping the EU and its policies, and its bargaining chips are the refugees escaping conflict zones. 

A European Union (EU) obsessed with refugees is an easy pry for blackmail. Turkish leadership is today doing exactly that: to blackmail the EU with refuges. What other qualifications could one give to the threats of Turkish President Erdogan to flood Europe with refugees unless he gets his demands when he told last year to the EU leader Jean-Claude Juncker, when he said: “We can open the doors to Greece and Bulgaria anytime and we can put the refugees on buses… So how will you deal with refugees if you don’t get a deal? Kill the refugees?”

In the latest round of talks, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmed Davudoglu has suggested that his country is ready to take one Syrian refugee arriving at the Greek Island back to Turkey in return for one settled within the EU. In other words, from the two million or so Syrian refugees now found within Turkey, Davudoglu is suggesting to send half to Europe, in return for keeping the other half.

The quarrelling Europeans are still discussing the suggestion of Mr Davudoglu. While German Chancelor Merkel has quickly gave her agreement to the plan by calling it “a breakthrough”, much like the Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, and the British Prime Minister David Cameron. Donald Tusk, the President of the European Council took the value of the agreement a step further when he declared: “The days of irregular migration to Europe are over.”

The deal “one for you, one for me” does not come free of charge. Turkish leadership has revealed its diplomatic skills and managed to negotiate EU funding promises. In November 2015 the EU had promised Ankara to give 3 billion Euros over a period of three years to Turkey, in return for Turkish efforts to keep the refugees away from European borders. Now, in the latest summit in Brussels, Turkey demanded and the EU will provide 6 billion Euros, double the initial amount, in return of Turkish collaboration to decrease the tide of refugees. Davutoglu is also pushing for visa free entry to EU for the 75 million Turkish citizens, as well as restarting negotiations for Turkey’s accession to the EU. 

Ahmed Davudoglu presented the Turkish plan to collaborate, and to crack-down on organized smuggling business, as an altruistic, humanitarian step: “With these new proposals, we aim to rescue refugees, discourage those who misuse and exploit their situation and find a new era in Turkey-EU relations.” 

The 6 billion Euros, the visa regime, and reviving membership negotiations are only the material part of the deal. EU has to pay a higher price, by continuing its Faustian deal with autocratic Turkey. While diplomats and ministers were negotiating in Brussels Turkey the Erdogan government was silencing the last remaining media outside their direct control in the country: on the next day, on March 8, a court decision changed the administration of Cihan news agency. Four days earlier a similar takeover brought Zaman daily paper, the highest circulation newspaper in Turkey (924’000 copies in 2014), under the secure domination of Erdogan administration. Both Zaman and Cihan belong to the Muslim cleric Fathullah Gülen, who was a close ally to Erdogan until 2014 when they disagreed how to divide among themselves the concentration of state power. In case Erdogan’s continuous power grab led to the current conflict with the Hizmet Movement, then how will there be any separation of powers in Turkey, a necessary condition for EU accession? 

Or, will the EU visa extension to Turkey cover the ever rapidly expanding ISIS influence within the Turkish society? 

Let us not fool ourselves, Davudoglu pushed for accession negotiations not to bring Turkey in line with Europe, but to use it as yet another bargaining chip, just like the case of the refugees. In return, EU will drop the idea of exercising any pressure for a number of abuses in Turkey, including the crack-down against journalists, persecution of academics calling for peace in Kurdistan, and of course the massive repression of the Kurdish people. Today, the EU is in no position to exercise pressure on Turkey, to ask for political reform and democratization, while it is asking Turkey to become its gatekeeper against the refugees.

This 6 billion EU deal will not solve neither the refugee problem of Europe, nor make unpopular rulers gain votes in the next elections. Syria is not the only crisis in European neighbourhood, and there are many more desperate peoples ready to jump into the waves to save their children from their national rulers. 

No, the restart of negotiations between Ankara and Brussels will not lead to membership anytime soon. Nor will the new agreement stop desperate refugees from seeking the shores of the old continent.