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Turkey at a Crossroads

By Jeremy Weiss, a guest contributor. He holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from Boston University. 


Turkey’s accession to the EU has been a diplomatic goal for decades, but a continual lack of progress has made the process seem like a mirage: even after years of discussion, membership remains distant. Turkey has long had one foot in Europe politically as well as geographically, with membership in the Council of Europe, OECD and OSCE. Despite applying for EU membership in 1987, Turkey did not receive candidate status until 1999. Six more years passed before negotiations began in 2005, and progress has since been arduous. Negotiators laid out a map toward Turkish/EU policy harmonization in 35 chapters, but today only one chapter has been provisionally closed, with 15 more remaining open. The other 19 have not even been broached.  

The challenges facing Europe and Turkey today are, unfortunately, throwing the differences between the two sides that have beset Turkey’s quest for EU membership into ever-starker relief. The need to subdue ISIS and deal humanely with the refugee crisis demand a new level of cooperation between European powers and the Turkish government. However, events of recent weeks have not only seriously undermined cooperation on these short-term objectives, they also threaten the long-term prospects of Turkish EU membership.

The Refugee Deal            

The most recent twists in the EU-Turkey relationship began in March, when the two sides struck a deal to stem the flow of refugees from Turkey to Greece via the Aegean Sea. Turkey agreed to accept the return of refugees from Greece, while the EU agreed to admit Syrian refugees directly from Turkey on a one-to-one basis. Brussels hoped these policies would dissuade migrants from making the dangerous trip to Greece, and prevent the overloading of the country’s overstretched refugee processing resources. In exchange for Turkish cooperation, Brussels promised to supply €6 billion in direct aid, and accelerate negotiations on enabling Turkish citizens to travel to the EU without visas.

Implementing this agreement has proved frustrating. The number of refugees returned from Greece to Turkey stood only at 468 by June, while a mere 802 Syrian refugees were dispatched from Turkey to EU countries by July. EU sources have complained that Turkey is tampering with the resettlement process by preventing educated Syrian refugees from leaving for Europe. Some returned refugees have also asserted that Turkey detains them in conditions more like prisons than refugee camps. If these accusations are accurate, they indicate that Turkey is not acting in good faith or upholding the “European values” that Brussels claims it is trying to promote by ameliorating the plight of refugees.

Yet, refugee crossings from Turkey to Greece have dropped from a peak of 200,000 per month to an average of 1,410 per month. Experts do not credit this entire drop to the refugee agreement, and also point to the closure of the “Balkan route” in March. Since then, Austria, Hungary, Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia and Macedonia combined to stifle the refugee flow and block any mass movement of refugees similar to those seen last year. One regional observer, speaking to Deutsche Welle, described these borders ashermetically sealed.” Analysts claim that these increased border controls are almost entirely responsible for dissuading refugees from crossing the Aegean. The border between Bulgaria and Greece remains a potential weak point in this network, but Bulgaria plans to extend its border fence with Turkey along the length of its border with Greece all the way to Macedonia. Once this is complete, the migrant route between Greece and other EU states will be almost entirely blocked with physical barriers.

Post-Coup Relations      

Despite these important changes, the refugee deal continues to loom large in light of the failed July 15th coup in Turkey. Turkish officials have complained about the lack of official visits by foreign representatives to show support in the wake of the coup. The Erdogan administration’s anger partially manifested itself in the recent rapprochement between Turkey and Russia, whose relations have been greatly strained by the Syrian conflict. Speaking with Reuters, former Turkish diplomat Sinan Ulgen remarked that “[f]or Erdogan, this meeting with Putin is certainly an opportunity to signal to Turkey’s partners in the West that it could have other strategic options,” while Russia hopes to chip away at NATO solidarity. The same piece also quotes Andrey Kortunov, the director of a Kremlin-friendly Russian think tank, who argued that Russia and Turkey, despite their differences, could look to one another because the West views both as outsiders.

At the very time Ankara and Moscow were busy mending fences, however, Germany’s foreign minister said German and Turkish emissaries were speaking to each other as though they are from different planets, Austria’s foreign minister pledged to veto future EU-Turkey talks in the Council of Ministers, and Austria’s chancellor called for the suspension of Turkish EU membership talks, saying,  “[w]e know that the democratic standards are clearly not sufficient to justify [Turkey’s] accession.” One important fissure emerged over Erdogan’s suggestion of reintroducing capital punishment as a response to the coup, which would be a direct contravention of EU law and drew criticism from European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker. It is also worth considering that prospective Turkish EU membership also hinges on the resolution of other longstanding disputes, particularly regarding Cyprus, whose government could veto Turkish accession.

The refugee crisis and the Turkish coup attempt have combined to add new layers to the already seemingly intractable process of Turkish EU membership. But if the Turkish government hopes to leverage the threat of dispersing future refugees toward Europe or drawing closer to Moscow as a means to winning concessions from Europe, it appears these gambits will fail. Europe has less need now than last summer to secure Turkish cooperation on the refugee issue since it has thrown many new barriers in the way of a refugee influx, and refugees are less likely to risk their lives simply to get from squalid camps in Turkey into an equally dismal situation in Greece. While the refugee issue still cries out for resolution for humanitarian reasons, European leaders appear to have come to the realization that Turkey cannot cynically use refugees to pressure Europe. Neither has Turkey’s rapprochement with Russia seemed to soften the criticism of European ministers who are willing to aim at Ankara.

At the moment, then, it does not appear that Europe risks a recurrence of highly destabilizing refugee movements if it rejects Turkish demands for visa-free travel and speedier negotiations to enter the EU. Entertaining accession talks with a state moving away from, rather than toward, EU governance and human rights practices would do more to undermine the EU than taking the small risk that an inability to conclude future refugee deals with Turkey would further fragment Europe. European leaders and voters should recognize that an improvement in Europe’s ability to control its frontiers has left it much less vulnerable to manipulation by the Erdogan administration. Europe should seek to extend cooperative action on securing its external border that has so strengthened its negotiating position with Turkey. It should also build on this by, for example, helping Bulgaria and Greece to secure their frontiers and cope with refugees already in those countries. This would unite current EU members rather than split them over offering unnecessary compromises to Turkey at this delicate time.


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