Turkey and the EU: consensus or contention?

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The visit of the Turkish president, Tayyip Erdoğan, to Brussels on 4-6 October 2015 and his meetings with high-ranking EU officials caused an intense media discussion. The reason is the set of measures discussed by Turkish and European officials regarding current migration crisis management. The measures discussed, among others, include the collaboration between Turkey and the EU, aimed at enhancing external border control, technical and financial assistance provided to Turkey to create additional facilities to accommodate refugees on Turkish territory, and aimed at signing the readmission agreement between Turkey and the EU. The proposed set of solutions has already been baptised by media as the “Faustian bargain” or the “Dirty deal”, and criticised equally by both those who favour migration and those who oppose it.

Turkey is one of the main destination countries, but also a transit country, for refugees fleeing war, instability and poverty in the Middle East and heading towards Europe. According to information provided by the UNHCR, Turkey has hosted over 2 million refugees from different conflict-affected countries since the beginning of the recent Middle East crises. The majority of refugees and asylum seekers are Syrians (2.2 million), who arrive at the bordering provinces of Turkey. Hundreds of thousands of refugees are in camps established along the Syrian border.

However, the majority (85%) are scattered through Turkish provinces far from border provinces, trying to survive in urban communities around Istanbul, Izmir, Canakkale and other cities. Though Turkey (together with other refugee transit countries such as Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Kosovo, Montenegro and Serbia) is considered to be a “safe” country for Syrians and was proposed amongst those included in the Common European list of Safe Countries of Origin, many refugees risk their lives attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea from Turkey to Greece in the hope of  finding a safe harbour and a better future in Europe. According to the information provided by the Hellenic police, of the 672,856 individuals smuggled from Turkey into Greece between 2011 and 10 September 2015, 326,630 were Syrians. This is a considerable number compared to entries into Greece, but relatively small compared to the 2.2 million Syrian refugees in Turkey.

According to Frontex, by the end of September 2015, 630,000 people entered the EU irregularly in 2015, many from Turkey though Greece (271,156). The UNHCR reports that the eastern Mediterranean route (from Turkey into Greece) has now surpassed the central Mediterranean route (from North Africa to Italy) as the main source of maritime arrivals. Hence, for the EU, consolidating its external borders is only viable in collaboration with the Turkish authorities. “We need Turkey. We cannot do it alone” stated Donald Tusk prior to the meeting with Erdogan. In his talk held during the meeting with EU leaders in Brussels on 5 October 2015, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan declared Turkey’s readiness to collaborate with the EU in managing the refugee crisis. An Action plan on EU-Turkey cooperation was recently drafted on the support of refugees and migration management (handed over on 5 October 2015 by European Commission President Juncker to the President of the Republic of Turkey Erdoğan). The Action Plan consists of two sections specifying measures that aim to support the Syrian and Iraqi refugees as well as their Turkish hosting communities, and to strengthen cooperation in order to prevent irregular migration. According to the document, the EU’s role mainly consists of providing technical and financial assistance to weaken the push-factors in Turkey and in the countries of origin, as well as in return to support operations and reintegration measures. It is intended that Turkey undertakes measures to build a strong migration management system, to facilitate the stay and integration of refugees in Turkish society as well as to accelerate procedures for smoothly readmitting irregular migrants. Both sides have agreed to step up their cooperation to address the unprecedented refugee crisis.

Though cooperation between Turkey and the EU is crucial for EU-external-border management, the way Ankara and Brussels see it is still far from the consensus. Turkey proposes establishing a “safe zone” — that is, protected areas on Syrian territory along the Turkish border where refugees can be hosted. The creation of a “safe zone” has long been a priority for Turkey as it would prevent the flow of refugees before entering Turkish territory and, hence, combat Turkey’s smuggling network. In his speech, President Erdoğan claimed that “the root cause of the refugee crisis today is the war in Syria” and urged the EU to do three things to end the crisis: “One is to focus on training and equipment, the second one is to declare a safe zone that would be protected from terrorism, and the third is a no-fly zone”. The seeds (elements) of such policies by Turkish officials have already been observed. The Turkish government officially continues its open-door policy and has spent nearly €5 billion since the beginning of the crisis, providing assistance in 25 camps at a monthly cost of €2 million. However, as the number of refugees continues to grow, the authorities started to apply alternative approaches. For example, the state supports the NGOs that provide assistance to the IDP camps on the Syrian territory. Also, border-controlling authorities started to introduce stricter control procedures to restrict the flows.

European leaders hold a reluctant position regarding the creation of the “safe zones” proposed by Ankara. Instead, Europe tries to convince Turkey to accept the “hotspots” strategy— the creation of facilities (six new camps with a two-million-refugee capacity) on the Turkish territory where asylum applications could be handled. According to the current version of the Draft Action Plan, the EU intends to mobilise up to €1billion (later the amount of promised aid reached €3.4 billion) for the period 2015-16 to support Turkey in coping with the present refugee crisis through the adoption of measures enabling refugees to access labour market and public services (including education for pupils and access to health services) for the duration of their stay in Turkey. EU funding “should be also used to enable refugees in need to settle in appropriate accommodations by facilitating their access to available shelters and building new ones. The priority will be given to the opening of the six refugee reception centres built with the EU co-funding”. The document also specifies the possibility of applying the existing EU resettlement schemes and programmes, which could enable refugees in Turkey to enter the EU in an orderly manner. One of the key points of the Draft Action Plan is the strengthening of cooperation between border-control authorities (in particular the Hellenic Coast Guard and the Turkish Coast Guard). If the Action Plan is accepted in its current version, Turkey should “step up and accelerate procedures to smoothly readmit irregular migrants who are not in need of international protection and were intercepted by Romanian, Greek or Bulgarian authorities coming from the Turkish territory in line with the established readmission obligations”. This is one of the most challenging points of the proposed Action Plan because it assumes the signing of a readmission agreement by Turkey, which would facilitate the process of returning those asylum seekers who entered the EU from Turkey. Migrants picked up while crossing the Mediterranean Sea from Turkey towards EU territory would be sent back to Turkey. For this purpose, additional points for handing over irregular migrants intercepted in the Aegean Sea would be opened near one of the Greek islands.

The acceptance of the EU-proposed strategy by Turkey might come at a price. Turkey might expect the EU to make political commitments in addition to the financial aid and technical support already proposed. So, in his speech, timed for the visit of German Chancellor Angela Merkel to Turkey, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu mentioned four conditions for agreeing on a proposed common Action Plan; the opening of negotiation chapters with the EU, visa liberalisation for Turks traveling to the EU by 2016, €3 billion to deal with the refugees,  and the invitation of Turkish leaders to EU summits. During the joint conference with Davutoğlu on 18 October, Merkel said: “There are four elements. Germany is ready to give support on these issues”. Though the final agreement is still be reached, it is already clear that whatever the final agreement will be, it will require more – rather than less – commitment and involvement from the EU in the crisis.

The EUI, RSCAS and MPC are not responsible for the opinion expressed by the author(s). Furthermore, the views expressed in this publication cannot in any circumstances be regarded as the official position of the European Union.