Berlin, 11.03.2016

Refugee Crisis: For Rationality in Relations with Turkey

Günter Seufert
Günter Seufert

The European Union should make concessions to Turkey, especially on visa-free travel and an accelerated accession process, argues Günter Seufert, but should exercise caution over some details of Turkey’s proposal for dealing with the refugee crisis.

Turkey is giving the EU a chance. That is one possible take on the 7 March summit in Brussels, where the heads of state and government of the European Union met with Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu to find a way out of the refugee crisis. If Davutoglu had not put his proposal on the table, the only outcome – apart from lip-service to Schengen – would have been the Balkan route remaining closed and European policy reduced to nothing more than a series of national decisions. Davutoglu’s initiative now gives Europe what may well be its last chance to find a common line. In essence, Davutoglu’s idea comprises two steps. First, to secure the EU’s external border in the Aegean, with Turkey taking back migrants who cross irregularly to Greece; second, for the member-states to create legal routes to the European Union by accepting Syrian refugees already registered in Turkey. »We are motivated primarily by humanitarian concerns«, Davutoglu said after the meeting. It is undeniable that such a solution would allow Europe both to demonstrate its resolve and to save face on the humanitarian issue. No-one would need to drown in the Aegean.

A Realistic Plan?

But can such a plan be realised? Resistance within the EU is gathering on two fronts. Countries in Eastern Europe would prefer not to accept any refugees at all, whether they arrive legally or illegally. In Western Europe moral qualms exist about Turkey’s own human rights situation, as well as political fears that cooperation could open the door too wide to Turkish accession. However, given Turkey’s complex and in some respects contradictory intentions, some of the details of the proposed deal could have unexpected and serious consequences.

In a sense Turkey is in the driving seat. More than once President Recep Tayyip Erdogan – who holds the reins of power in Ankara – has openly threatened to exacerbate Europe’s refugee crisis, for example by bussing refugees to the border. Indeed, the pace of crossings from Turkey to Greece only exploded after politicians from the governing AKP and pro-government newspapers publicly aired that scenario. Nor do Turkey’s actions following the adoption of the joint action plan in October 2015 supply much in the way of grounds for optimism. At the end of November, immediately after the summit, Ankara demonstrated just how effectively it can act against traffickers to prevent irregular migration to the EU. But after just one week the situation was back to normal, with the traffickers again able to go about their business undisturbed. Ankara opens and closes the gates as is politically opportune, to underline the EU’s dependency.

Turkey Holds the Strongest Hand

Against this background, the proposal for Europe to accept as many Syrian refugees from Turkey as Turkey takes back from Greece appears in a different light. In this model, Turkey decides more or less unilaterally how many migrants from which countries make it to the Greek islands and are returned to Turkey at the EU’s expense. And that number in turn decides how many Syrian refugees the EU must accept directly from Turkey. The arrangement thus presupposes a level of trust that is not presently apparent.

The same applies to the intention, expressed in the summit declaration, to work together with Turkey to ensure that refugees are able to remain in »safe zones« inside Syria itself. Although Turkey has already supplied a great of assistance to the refugees, the refugee question has always also been an instrument of Ankara’s Syria policy. In 2012, when the number of refugees in Turkey was still under 100,000, Ankara was already urging the United Nations and the United States to establish no-fly zones in Syria to neutralise Assad’s air force and accelerate his downfall. For Ankara, toppling Assad remains the absolute priority. But the Russian intervention has knocked its realisation into the long grass. Anyone seeking to establish unilateral no-fly zones in Syria today – and »safe zones« are nothing else – is contributing to a further escalation of the conflict.

Foundations for Long-term Cooperation

Instead of making too many concessions on these two questions, the European Union would do better to show openness to Turkey’s other demands. As it is incontrovertible that integration is more expensive in Europe than in Turkey, the EU should not quibble over further financial demands from Ankara. Visa-free entry to the Schengen zone for Turkish citizens is long overdue. Moreover, visa-free travel fosters economic exchange and strengthens  political and cultural ties – which Turkish democrats urgently require in view of the collapse of democracy in Turkey today. That applies even more to a resumption of the deadlocked EU accession process. Only as an accession candidate will Turkey be receptive to European demands for rule of law. Those who reject cooperation with Turkey on the grounds of terrible human rights violations, on the other hand, are making matters easy for themselves. Membership is a long way off, and only conceivable after a battery of reforms. To categorically exclude it, yet at the same time hope for, indeed rely on Turkey’s support – that cannot add up.

A German Version of this »Point of View« has been translated into English by Meredith Dale.

Further Reading

Günter Seufert

Turkey as Partner of the EU in the Refugee Crisis

Ankara’s Problems and Interests

SWP Comment 2016/C 01, January 2016, 8 Pages