Europe’s refugee crisis continues. The EU’s deal with Turkey may provide humanitarian assistance, respite for European leaders and a better dialogue with Turkey, argues Mustafa Cirakli.
Turkey-EU membership talks formally began in 2005, but there has been little progress. In part this is because of opposition from several ‘core’ member states, notably France and Germany. Resistance from Cyprus because of the non-implementation by Turkey of the ‘Ankara protocol’ has also meant that the negotiations are practically frozen on several key chapters, including energy and foreign policy.
But now Turkey and the EU face a common challenge presented by the refugee crisis. This, if managed properly, can offer an effective platform for EU engagement in Turkey to develop a robust humanitarian response to the plight of the refugees, as well as restarting Turkey’s currently-stalled accession process.
There are several good reasons why EU-Turkey cooperation over the refugee crisis is desperately needed. Turkey is now the main transit country for Syrian refugees and other migrants: nearly four-fifths of the more than 615,000 people who arrived in Europe by sea this year, the majority of them Syrian, travelled from Turkey’s west coast to reach nearby Greece via the Aegean Sea.
According to the UNHCR, various factors brought about the surge this year: rapidly deteriorating conditions in refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey played a major part in driving the exodus. Turkey is currently hosting more than two million Syrians fleeing their country’s civil war. It has spent €7bn to support refugees – far more than any other country in the region. But a sluggish economy and the growing public backlash against ‘Turkey’s generosity towards refugees’ means the country needs more money to handle the crisis.
The plan, which is yet to be finalised, offers Turkey €3bn in financial assistance from the EU, while calling for Turkey to update its asylum system and boost refugees’ rights. As it stands, Syrian refugees are granted only ‘temporary protection’, with restricted access to education, health and other social services. The recent deal is a much-needed opportunity to modernise the Turkish asylum system in line with European standards.
For its critics, the plan marks a political victory for the controversial Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. He has been accused of sabotaging the peace process and reigniting conflict with the Kurds, as well as orchestrating a crackdown on critical journalists and other opponents – all, allegedly, to consolidate his increasingly authoritarian regime.
European leaders are blamed for trying to ‘soft-pedal’ on Turkey’s poor human-rights record in order to stem the influx of refugees and migrants entering Europe. Brussels’ decision to delay until after the elections the annual progress report on Turkey – which is expected to contain heavy criticism of Erdogan and his disregard for EU principles of free speech, minority rights, freedom of the media and the rule of law – has been seen as a ‘calculated attempt’ to make Erdogan look more respectable and help his Justice and Development Party (AKP) to regain a parliamentary majority in the recently held elections.
To what extent the EU intervention determined the election outcome in AKP’s favour remains debatable. Other factors, notably the overriding fear of further instability, are likely to have played a greater part in AKP’s victory. And while the win does not give Erdogan the ‘super-majority’ to roll-out his controversial plans for greater executive powers, it may lead to a normalisation of Turkish politics by providing AKP with the strong mandate that it sought all along.
Meanwhile, Russia’s intervention in Syria is expected to create a new wave of displaced people moving toward Turkey and onto Europe. Lingering inaction by the EU would mean millions of refugees facing further loss of rights. It is precisely at such a critical juncture that EU dialogue and cooperation with Turkey can tackle a rapidly-deteriorating problem, while reinvigorating efforts toward political reform.
Though there are potential pitfalls with the plan. The EU, for its part, cannot ignore its principles and responsibilities. It should not view the recent deal as a simple way of ‘stemming the inflow of refugees’ before they reach Europe, or to be a substitute for their own asylum obligations under international and EU law.
European leaders must also tread carefully in their dealings with Turkey. They should couch demands for cooperation as connected to the Turkish accession process. European short-termism may regard Turkey as a mere ‘strategic partner’. However, as a prospective EU candidate Turkey is different from other countries such as Morocco, which has similar agreements on border management and asylum responsibilities with the EU. The cornerstone of EU-Turkey negotiations must be the country’s aspiration for full EU membership, ensuring that EU rules and obligations are observed.
Last but not least, any final deal should entail more EU involvement in co-managing the crisis with a view to strengthening Turkey’s accession process. This will also stop potential attempts by Erdogan or nationalists to frame any progress as a ‘concession’ to consolidate their own domestic agendas.
Preaching to Turkey on human rights without providing practical assistance or closer alignment may seem commendable to some, but it is unlikely to have an impact on Erdogan, or the country’s political difficulties. Yet a deal which paves the way for the reinvigoration of EU-Turkey relations – based on greater engagement and genuine partnership, with a common understanding of a shared future – may go some way towards providing better protection for refugees in line with international law and EU principles.
It may also provide the anchor strong enough to stop Turkey from drifting into the abyss.