Every week, a selection of leading experts answer a new question from Judy Dempsey on the foreign and security policy challenges shaping Europe’s role in the world.
The temptation to sell out to Turkey for short-term gains on the refugee flow exists in some parts of Europe. In other parts, there is outrage at the picture of a trade-off, either because of the human rights situation in Turkey or because spending €3 billion ($3.2 billion) to support Turkey is seen as too much. If the EU does not get over its internal differences and move on to developing a global approach to Turkey, the decisions reached at the EU-Turkey summit on November 29 may backfire—with potentially disastrous consequences.
Turkey sits across key European interests. Its role in the Syria peace talks and ambiguous approach to the self-proclaimed Islamic State are preoccupying. The deterioration of the peace process with Turkey’s Kurds and the polarization of domestic politics are dangerous. The EU cannot turn a blind eye to government repression of dissent, not just because of human rights, but also because such repression is undermining Turkey’s own stability.
With many hot issues on the table, the EU cannot afford to fall into the trap of trading accession for cooperation on the refugee flow. Turkey is also vulnerable: it is surrounded by a devastating conflict, is internally insecure, and has few friends left in the region. Ankara’s diatribe with Moscow after Turkish forces shot down a Russian aircraft near the Syrian-Turkish border on November 24 was the latest in a series of foreign policy blunders. So Europe need not beg for Ankara’s cooperation.
Developing a global approach to the complex jigsaw involving Turkey will have to be the next step. A positive message to Europeans and to Ankara would be to show that the EU’s relationship with Turkey is not an instrumental give-and-take but part of a bigger picture with high stakes and potential high gains for all.
Desperate times require desperate measures. The inflow of refugees, especially if it were to accelerate given the worsening conditions in Syria, could represent an existential crisis for Europe. This is not just because the refugee surge has the potential to alter the demographics of the region. It is also, and more importantly for incumbent European governments, because the politics of the refugee crisis risks fueling the rise of the extreme Right and changing Europe’s character.
That Europe is selling out to Turkey is perfectly understandable in this light. But many in Europe will perceive as excessive the deal reached by Brussels and Ankara on November 29: money, visa-free travel arrangements for Turkish citizens, and the opening of a chapter of Turkey’s EU accession process in exchange for better management of the refugees and steps to prevent them from reaching Europe.
The bitter taste left by this compromise—as well as the increasingly authoritarian bent of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the disappearing rule of law in Turkey, and the resulting attack on free speech—augurs poorly for the future of Turkish-European relations.
The November 29 agreement may also be a poisoned chalice for Ankara, as the EU will intensely scrutinize every move Turkey makes to assess how well it lives up to its promises. In the end, Turkey will be blamed for any slip-up, further adding to European skepticism of Ankara. Paradoxically, this deal may doom Turkey’s European ambitions.
Absolutely. The EU is desperate to keep immigrants outside its borders, which essentially means keeping them in Turkey, and is willing to pay any price for it.
The story of Turkey’s membership is complex. When in 1987 Turkey applied for membership, the European Community (the EU’s predecessor) considered the application as an opportunity to review its Turkish strategy, acknowledging Turkey as a European country.
As the EU-Turkey Customs Union was completed in 1995, Turkey’s political system and security ideology were seen as obstacles to full membership, according to the new Copenhagen criteria for accession. However, the declaration of the 1999 Helsinki European Council generated an unprecedented consensus among the EU’s political leadership on the importance of reforms. Turkey progressed significantly on civil and human rights, including minority rights and the abolition of death penalty.
As Turkey progressively became a regional broker in the Middle East, its record on civil liberties, human rights, and democratic principles worsened. Since 2006, the EU has pointed to the insufficiency of the government’s performance, a shortcoming that EU leaders cannot afford to overlook now by relaunching Turkey’s membership talks.
The EU is already seeing two of its greatest carrots—the promise of economic development and increased mobility—diminished. If the EU renegades on its founding values for the sake of stopping immigrants, why should other candidate countries be compelled to continue working toward meeting the Copenhagen criteria? And how can the EU’s values-based, soft-power foreign policy retain any of its credibility?
Yes, unfortunately. However, the EU is selling out only to half of Turkey. The EU has long been seen as an anchor for Turkey’s democratic transformation. For more than a decade, civil society activists have been promoting reforms to bolster human and fundamental rights and the rule of law, with a strong endorsement of the EU and its values.
This ideal completely disappeared when the EU opted for strategic interest over democratic values. At a summit on November 29, the EU reached an agreement with Turkey to stem the flow of refugees crossing into Europe, without even highlighting the expansion of undemocratic practices in Turkey.
The conclusions of the summit are far from the EU’s ability to regain its transformative power for Turkey, particularly as the EU failed to mention the urgency to open the chapters of Turkey’s EU accession negotiations on the judiciary and fundamental rights and on justice, freedom, and security.
With few incentives on the table and €3 billion ($3.2 billion) in aid, the EU is expecting a miracle from Turkey: to minimize the flow of Syrian refugees, many of whom want to have a decent life in Germany rather than to stay in Turkey and face increasing discriminative treatment when it comes to employment, health, and education.
To find a sustainable solution to the refugee crisis, the EU should see Turkey not as a temporary strategic partner but as a candidate country. That means focusing first on the restoration of democracy, press freedom, and rule of law not only for today’s citizens of Turkey but also for the country’s eventual future citizens from Syria.
Turkey and the EU can’t ignore each other, so the fact that the migration crisis has forced them into a new intensive dialogue has to be good news. It’s no sellout if the two sides take the opportunity to reset their relationship.
A new pivot by Turkey toward the EU is not impossible. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is a demagogue, but he is also an archpragmatist. When he was prime minister in the early 2000s, he made Europeanizing reforms. Now he can see that Turkey is more isolated than it has been for years: the relationship with Russia is imploding, and the Middle East is a disaster.
The test of a reset has to be the Kurdish question. In the summer, Erdoğan disavowed his own peace process with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). On November 28, the situation worsened when Kurdish human rights lawyer Tahir Elci was assassinated.
If Erdoğan is persuaded to swing back toward peace with the Kurds, both domestically and in Syria, then that is good news for everybody. But if Turkey moves back toward the EU, the EU has to get serious too—a tough challenge at the moment.
European leaders have made a series of high-level visits to Turkey’s imposing presidential palace and issued statements strongly emphasizing Turkey’s role and Europe’s own inability to manage the refugee crisis. Such moves, in combination with the victory of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey’s November 1 parliamentary election, have succeeded in boosting Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s self-perception of grandeur.
There is little doubt that Turkey has borne a substantial burden in the Syrian refugee crisis and should be supported financially, together with Lebanon and Jordan. But the agreement reached by the EU and Turkey at a summit on November 29 makes no specific reference to access to the labor market or to primary and secondary education, which would make staying in Turkey more attractive for Syrian refugees. Nor does the agreement mention the creation of hot spots on Turkish territory or a readmission process for economic migrants.
The result will be much less progress in dealing with the refugee crisis than hoped or expected. Only the end of the Syrian conflict with a political solution involving Russia and moderate elements of the current Syrian regime will relieve the refugee pressure on Europe.
Furthermore, neither side has any illusions about real progress on Turkey’s EU accession negotiations. In view of recent developments regarding the rule of law and human rights in Turkey, the best both sides should aim for is closer cooperation on foreign and security policy—and then only if there is a clearer convergence between the two sides’ objectives.
The short answer is no. Cooperation with Turkey is absolutely critical if the EU is to have any hope of managing what is likely to be a protracted migration challenge from Syria, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. Turkey has already absorbed perhaps as many as 3 million refugees since the start of the civil war in Syria. The longer-term social and economic costs to Turkey are likely to be enormous, and the €3 billion ($3.2 billion) in assistance promised by the EU will help alleviate a pressing human security problem.
The broader package of elements agreed to at the November 29 Turkey-EU summit may spur Ankara to action against human trafficking networks and reduce the flow of refugees across the Aegean Sea. The agreement opens the way for closer cooperation between Ankara and Brussels on a range of foreign and security policy issues where the EU needs Turkey—and vice versa.
The deal signals a return to pragmatic, transactional diplomacy. It does not necessarily signal a fast track on the larger question of Turkey’s EU membership. Real movement on this front will require many things to come together, from improvement in Turkey’s deteriorating internal situation to settlement of the dispute over the division of Cyprus. It is not even clear that the political climate in Europe will permit visa liberalization for Turks, which was agreed to conditionally at the summit in Brussels, much less pave the way to EU membership.
The EU is not lowering any of its standards for membership. But it has given the impression its silence can be bought in exchange for stemming the flow of refugees crossing the Aegean Sea.
Politicians who for years blocked any progress on accession talks were suddenly forced to change their position by 180 degrees. In October, the European Commission decided to postpone its annual progress reports for candidate and potential candidate countries to avoid upsetting Ankara just before Turkey’s November 1 poll.
And in late November, in a week when (more) journalists were jailed and a famous Kurdish human rights lawyer assassinated, EU and Turkish leaders announced a new phase in the EU-Turkey partnership. Altogether, not the best PR for a credible EU.
Despite all this, it’s good there is a deal. An agreement was desperately needed to prevent the slow dismantling of the EU, which is being torn apart by the refugee crisis. It was also about time that Europe started to pay attention to the burden Turkey is carrying by hosting 2.2 million Syrian refugees.
This forced engagement could in the end be turned into something positive if it is clear to both sides that the accession process must be merit-based, with respect for the rule of law and fundamental freedoms at its core.
When it comes to helping Turkey out with its 2.2 million Syrian refugees, the EU is not selling out: it has now offered money that should have been made available years ago. If this assistance had been sent earlier, it would certainly have done much more to head off this year’s refugee crisis.
For its part, Turkey should use this money to improve conditions in camps or perhaps, as Crisis Group recommended in 2014, initiate a scheme of housing vouchers. This may reduce the desperation of Syrians trying to leave, particularly now that winter is making travel more dangerous and difficult.
However, this late intervention means that Turkey will not, with the best will in the world, be able to change quickly the psychology of refugees who have now given up hope of going home and believe Europe is their best option. No country with a coastline as long as that of Turkey, and with so many refugees wanting to leave, can get quick and complete control of the situation.
News that EU states are planning easier travel arrangements for Turkish citizens is also good. The current requirements for ordinary Turkish people to obtain visas are onerous and intrusive and alienate exactly the kind of business and student visitors that EU states should be encouraging.
However, whether a new visa deal goes through will depend on Turkey’s implementation of a readmission agreement—that is, taking back illegal travelers through Turkey to the EU who aren’t granted EU asylum. There is room for European leaders’ political discretion in deciding how hard to push Turkey on the details of this, and some flexibility would be welcome to make the most of this window of opportunity.
European Commissioner Frans Timmermans put the EU in a very weak corner by rushing to strike a deal with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan at the EU-Turkey summit on November 29. There will be no easy wins, even if the postsummit press releases suggest so. Instead, there is a risk of a major backlash.
The unprecedented horse-trading of entirely separate topics—the sheltering of refugees, visa liberalization, and Turkey’s EU accession—has created a political cocktail that could prove explosive.
The European Commission has promised something it does not hold in its own hands: the accession of a new EU member state requires unanimity among existing members, and visa liberalization needs majorities in the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament. These complex procedures are in sharp contrast with Turkey’s high expectations. And the criteria for visa liberalization and accession cannot be bent for political reasons. The Copenhagen criteria for EU membership are solid, yet the commission has just sent the opposite message.
On top of regional tensions, polarization in Turkey has reached an all-time low. The arrest of two prominent journalists on November 26 and the murder two days later of a human rights lawyer in the southeastern Turkish city of Diyarbakir brought the country to boiling point, right when Turkish leaders were shaking hands with their EU counterparts.
The choice to postpone the European Commission’s report on Turkey’s progress toward accession and to exclude references to human rights and the rule of law from the conclusions of the November 29 summit sends a terrible signal to the population of Turkey. It is also not in line with the concerns of European society or of the European Parliament.
While the deal reached at the summit was supposed to revive EU-Turkey relations, it was in fact stillborn. The agreement seems to have served domestic political purposes on both sides, but in reality these political benefits are wearing off, and the hard results remain to be seen.
The EU is witnessing the return of realpolitik and a serious erosion of its postmodern nature. The refugee crisis is the tipping point for a Europe already overstressed by a series of crises that threaten the eurozone, the security of Southern and Eastern Europe, and the political stability of a growing number of member states. Now throw on top of this the potential end of the Schengen passport-free zone, and the danger to all that Europe has painstakingly built over the past half century is clear and present.
The openness and interdependence of a postnational and postmodern Europe are now fading and are not likely to come back. The massive influx of Muslim refugees and the state failures that this influx has produced have confronted Europeans with the brutal realities of the use of force and threats to their open societies and identities. One example is the sudden increase in the numbers of young Frenchmen signing up for military service and the French president’s use of the term “war” in dealing with the November 13 Paris attacks.
Europeans now have to make messy compromises that realpolitik demands, starting with Turkey. Turkey is Europe’s Mexico. The administration of U.S. President Barack Obama has compromised with Mexico, providing aid and other incentives to a semifailed state in return for its assistance in halting the influx of economic and political refugees from Central America, with success. Europe now has to do the same with Turkey. The only question is the price Europe must pay, but this is one precondition for stabilizing Europe. More such compromises are sure to follow.
Turkish and EU leaders have hailed their November 29 summit as a success. With a deal that foresees €3 billion ($3.2 billion) to assist Turkey in hosting over 2 million Syrian refugees, the prospect of visa liberalization for Turkish citizens by mid-2016, and the opening of a chapter of Turkey’s EU accession negotiations later in December, all the main EU and Turkish desiderata seem to have been met.
Yet can the summit be considered a real game changer? Arguably not. Visa liberalization could remain caught in the crossfire of a persisting Syrian civil war—and ensuing refugee outflow—as well as mounting right-wing populism in the EU. And the opening of an accession chapter would do precious little to revitalize moribund negotiations. With fourteen chapters opened, 21 still closed, and talks that have been dragging on for a decade, it will take far more than a single chapter to revitalize the accession process.
Perhaps most importantly, the general political climate in Turkey does not suggest a growing convergence with EU norms and standards. The EU’s gratification of Turkey at a time when power continues to be centralized in one man’s hands, the conflict with the insurgent Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) has resumed, pressure on the media is mounting, and a prominent human rights activist has just been assassinated does not make for a pretty picture.
Yet there is still hope. While the EU may be reenergizing Turkey’s accession process today for the wrong reasons, the outcome could be positive. If a settlement is reached in the coming months over the division of Cyprus, the ensuing unfreezing of most remaining accession chapters could neatly dovetail with a new political climate in Europe in which Turkey’s strategic value is finally appreciated. At that point, there could be a genuine revitalization of EU-Turkey relations and Turkey’s reform momentum.
Not all things are done for the right reasons. But maybe, just maybe, the outcome in this case could end up being positive nevertheless.
The November 29 deal between the EU and Turkey—encompassing visa liberalization, biannual EU-Turkey summits, the opening of at least one new chapter in Turkey’s EU accession negotiations, as well as cash in return for Turkey stemming the refugee flow to the EU—will reenergize the EU-Turkey relationship but may also change its nature.
Consumed by its own crisis, the EU has little appetite for further enlargement, while being virtually at war with itself. Meanwhile, Turkey is not in democratization mode. These circumstances have inevitably led to the accession process being put on the back burner. The positive agenda that was launched in 2012 to reenergize EU-Turkey relations has not delivered any concrete results either.
Elements of the November 29 deal correspond to the positive agenda and may hopefully revitalize the EU-Turkey relationship if implemented. However, this deal is missing an essential aspect: promoting political reforms and fundamental rights in Turkey. The EU accession process was seen as a democratic anchor for Turkey, but the fact that Turkey can make gains in the process accompanied by concerns over the rule of law and media freedoms in the country raises concerns that this may not be the case anymore.
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