The Shaky Foundation of the E.U.-Turkey Deal

By W. Robert Pearson - The Middle East Institute | Mar 24, 2016
The Shaky Foundation of the E.U.-Turkey Deal

Turkey and the European Union have reached what they have labelled an “historic” agreement. The Europeans believe they have papered over an expanding and divisive refugee problem, while the Turks think they have a wider door for E.U. membership. The Europeans, however, have no intention of bringing Turkey into its fold anytime soon as it would dramatically accelerate the growth of its rightwing parties. Neither do the Turks have a genuine interest in solving Europe’s refugee crisis, since the crisis itself is Turkey’s leverage to gain concessions from Europe.

The basic problem of the deal itself remains: Europe will not pay until Turkey stems the refugee flow and accepts refugees from Europe, and Turkey will not act until it sees the money. The E.U. countries have yet to actually agree among themselves on how to pay the money, and the Turks have already said they do not have the means to stop the refugee flow. The refugees in Turkey and in Europe are themselves a key actor, though both the E.U. and Turkey act as if these hopeful exiles will simply do what they are told. But what will happen if the refugees refuse to board ships and planes? On the sea, will NATO ships begin to take them back to Turkey instead of landing them in Europe? Will the smugglers and refugees begin to look at Italy, France or Spain?

Turkey’s diplomacy is centered on several defining self-perceptions within the Turkish psyche. How Turkey views itself plays an important part in how it interacts with Europe on the refugee crisis. Turkey bases its diplomacy on its geographic centrality, as well as its sense of destiny to be part of Europe and its view of itself as having a special status regionally based on its former empire. The Turks are also steeped in nationalist conviction, who see themselves as overcoming great odds to win independence, and resisting others who yearn to control Turkey. Compromise is weakness, in the Turkish mindset, and thus not an option for Ankara.

This mindset will influence Turkey’s approach in follow-up negotiations with the E.U. on the refugee crisis, and will roughly take its course as follows:

  • Turkey is a victim. Turkey has borne the burden of the refugee influx for five years and cannot control the crisis without massive help. Efforts to date have been woefully inadequate. Note: We will never hear from Ankara that the international obligation to Turkey has been fully paid.
  • Turkey cannot solve the problem. Ankara will argue that it did not cause the problem and that the E.U. is wealthier and more powerful than Turkey, and thus has the primary responsibility for a solution. As the negotiations proceed, Ankara will continue to make it clear, however, that the E.U. continues to fail to do what needs to be done—whether in payments to Turkey or acceptance of refugees into Europe.
  • Turkey requires significant upfront concessions. Since the E.U. has the major responsibility to solve the crisis, it should offer Turkey significant concessions in membership negotiations as a sign of seriousness in dealing with Turkey as a respected partner.
  • Turkey cannot say how much help it will be able to provide in the actual circumstances. Ankara will agree that it will do what it can, but it will never be tied down to commitments that it cannot change, thus ensuring that additional negotiations and concessions will be required from the E.U.
  • Turkey is not required to carry out its own promises or enter into new arrangements until the E.U. first fulfills its part of the bargain. Turkey will likely insist that the E.U. has not met its obligations to execute agreed terms.
  • The E.U.’s position is hypocritical. Ankara will point out that while the E.U. regularly lectures Turkey on human rights, Brussels is now violating basic human rights on a massive scale by refusing entry to innocent war victims. The E.U., Turkey will maintain, has no moral standing to be critical of Turkey.
  • Turkey is already a democracy and will make no concessions on how it runs its internal affairs. Ankara will point out the rise of right-wing sentiment and parties in Europe and the blockage of borders as undemocratic stains on the E.U.’s position.
  • Turkey’s stand is based on principle and international law, and Ankara has no reason to offer any compromise.
  • Turkey’s continued public castigation of E.U. positions is an accurate description of Europe’s failure to do the right thing and pales in comparison to the rampant Islamophobia evident in Europe.
  • Turkey is the E.U.’s only salvation in the current crisis. If the negotiations break down or are not faithfully executed, Europe’s refugee crisis will spread with refugees coming into Italy, Spain and France in increasing numbers. To surmount these obstacles, Europe must be prepared to abandon its criticism of Turkey’s democracy and take new and concrete steps towards membership for Turkey.

The difficulties have already begun. The ability to escalate the crisis lies in Turkey’s hands, and Ankara will not be reluctant to maximize those efforts. As Turkey seeks to use the opportunity to extract further concessions from Europe, the refugees—caught in the middle of conflicting aims— may very well see their plight worsen.