Turkey: Towards a new relationship?

14 Mar 2016 - 19:03
Source: European Commission DG / Flickr

The refugee crisis has brought the relationships between Turkey and the EU into turbulent waters. Old archived files such as liberalisation of the visa regulations and the negotiations about Turkish EU membership are being dusted off on request by Ankara in exchange for cooperation in stemming the flow of asylum seekers to EU countries. The Turks are also asking for large sums of money for relief for the millions of Syrian refugees in their country. One element of the recently signed agreement in principle is that Turkey has agreed that it will take back all asylum seekers who reach Greece illegally with the assistance of human traffickers. This may stop the illegal flow. In return, the EU will set up a legal migration and relocation process for Syrians from Turkey into Europe. This should take the wind out of the human smugglers’ sails, thereby bringing an end to their inhuman practices.

Negotiations about the details of the agreement with Turkey are still ongoing. On top of that, the EU members are not yet all singing from exactly the same hymn sheet. That relocation, for instance, has proved a thorny question. Critical questions have been asked in the European Parliament and elsewhere about the feasibility, the moral aspects and the legality of the agreements about strictly limiting migration.

It is clear that reaching an agreement is in the interests of both sides. However, the time pressure is higher for the EU. In the spring - when the weather starts to improve - a new influx is expected. However, public support for relief for hundreds of thousands more asylum seekers is wearing away in the member states that they are converging on. Because Turkey is the one holding the reins, it is the one that is able to stem the flow. Or not. It is therefore holding a stronger hand than the EU at the moment and is able to impose demands.

Some people are calling it blackmail. That is going too far, because it is also genuinely in Turkey’s interests to cooperate with the EU - in economic and political terms and in relief work for refugees.

Ankara has also neatly included items in the deal that have nothing to do with the refugees. But if the EU sticks to its guns on the tough preconditions for a visa liberalisation and, even more, for EU membership, things will not progress very far.

Turkey however would like an early timeline for the former - the more important in the short term -and that may push the European Commission towards somewhat more flexibility in how they apply the conditions. Exactly why Ankara is so keen on a new impulse for the negotiations is in fact a bit of a mystery. They must surely realise there that it will nevertheless remain a lengthy process requiring painful and radical reforms.

The same applies for Chancellor Merkel. What can an avowed opponent of Turkish EU membership have been intending, when she agreed to the text in question? That we should not take it too seriously?

To say the least, the EU is allowing the suggestion that some flexibility will be possible in the two dossiers in question. A lot is currently being made subsidiary to the refugee deal. As a result, the policy is threatening to become one-dimensional in nature. A critical attitude to other urgent issues has been deliberately set aside. Brussels has only responded half-heartedly to ‘provocations’ such as the muzzling of the newspaper Zaman shortly before the EU-Turkey summit.

President Erdogan is accepting less and less criticism of his regime and his presidential ambitions. Independent media and critical journalists are having an increasingly tough time of it. A freedom that the EU sees as fundamental is being squeezed. Will the EU be able to breathe new life into the negotiations without paying any attention to constitutional infringements?

As a result of the pressure to reach an agreement about refugees, the EU politicians responsible are also avoiding questions about the situation in south-eastern Turkey, where Turkish security forces are involved in heavy fighting with Kurdish PKK fighters. Turkey is fully entitled to resist terrorist violence, but those affected are primarily the civilian population. Many people think that the EU must engage more closely in order to prevent further escalation and help the wheels of a political peace process get in motion.

Turkey's stability (political and otherwise) is under threat from the increasingly authoritarian actions of the government and the violence in the South East. This comes hand-in-hand with risks for the common approach to the refugee problem.

Also read the following articles (in Dutch) in the Internationale SpectatorDe Migratieagenda van de Europese Commissie10-puntenplan voor een ander grensbeleid and Migratie en ontwikkeling in Afrika