EU leaders seem ready to yield to Turkey’s president Erdogan to preserve a migration deal

A migration deal between the EU and Turkey, which was struck in March, has resulted in a sharp fall in the number of asylum-seekers making their way to the European Union across the Aegean Sea from Turkey. Granting Turkish citizens visa-free access to the EU’s Schengen passport-free travel zone is the most controversial part of March’s deal.

The whole idea of a deal is to send a signal to migrants that they have no hope of winning asylum if they cross the Aegean Sea to Greek islands from Turkey. Ankara agreed to prevent Middle Eastern refugees and migrants from crossing the Aegean Sea and take back people, who had made their way to the EU illegally via a route through Turkey, while the EU agreed to resettle Syrian refugees living in camps on Turkish soil. Additionally, Brussels promised Turkey progress in its EU accession process and offered 6 billion euro in refuge aid and visa-free travel to the European 26-member Schengen area. Turkey, however, must meet the EU’s 72 technical criteria set out as conditions before the visa exemption takes place.

The main obstacle in the implementation of a visa-waver deal is the EU’s insistence on Turkey to narrow its definition of terrorism, bringing it into line with EU norms and standards. This political condition is unacceptable for Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s theoretically non-partisan president. He is unwilling to overhaul the anti-terror legislation, because a broad definition is used by authorities to arrest critics of his increasingly authoritarian rule – opposition politicians, journalists, academics and others who dare to speak their minds. Most media outlets have already been muzzled. The Reporters Without Borders’ press freedom index puts Turkey in 151st place out of 180 countries, between Tajikistan and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Turkey has a huge problem with corruption. The Transparency International’s 2015 Corruption Perception Index puts Turkey on 66th position out of 168 countries, behind South Africa. One of the most important roles of media is to protect the public from corrupt political officials by exposing their illegal practices. Like in Russia, it is now too risky in Turkey to try to expose corruption within the ruling Justice and Development (AK) party.

Last year’s chaotic flow of refugees and migrants into Europe, which nearly led to the collapse of the EU’s system of border-free travel, is the last thing EU leaders would like to repeat. Without obtaining much-valued visa-free travel for Turkish citizens visiting the EU, Ankara will renege on its commitments, causing new migrant chaos.

Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel’s open-door refugee policy has sparked support for right-wing populism across Europe. Support for the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD) party has increased to around 11 per cent nationally, while support for the once-mighty Social Democrats (SPD), a coalition partner of Ms Merkel’s conservative CDU/CSU bloc, is hovering around 20 per cent. An agreement with Turkey has rescued Ms Merkel from a potential political backlash. She has, therefore, a special interest in preventing a new massive wave of migration.

Brussels has suggested that a visa-free travel deal will be void, if Turkey doesn’t change its sweeping laws against terrorism. Ankara argues that the anti-terror legislation is needed, because Turkey is being targeted by Islamist and Kurdish militants. Given that most Turks have given up on the EU-membership dream, the EU is no longer able to persuade the Turkish government to adopt a democratic and liberal agenda. On the other hand, in order to prevent a rerun of the refugee crisis – which saw more than 1 million refugees from war-torn Syria, Iraq and elsewhere reaching Europe in 2015 – Europe needs Turkey’s cooperation; it needs Turkey more than other way round.

The European Parliament along with EU member states must yet approve a visa-waiver agreement. Austria, France and the Netherlands – where anti-EU, right-wing populist parties are leading in opinion polls – are particularly wary of granting 80 million Turks visa-free access to the EU’s Schengen zone. Criticism of visa liberalisation has also built up among members of the European Parliament amid Mr Erdogan’s crack down on press freedom, dissent academics and the Kurdish minority, which mostly live in Turkey’s poor south-east.

Despite occupying mostly ceremonial post, Mr Erdogan dominates politics. He is Turkey’s unrivalled political leader, who displays an authoritarian streak. He once said that democracy is like a train from which to disembark on reaching one’s destination. This opinion suggests that he is not really committed to democracy. Removing visa requirements for Turkish visitors to most of the EU will only boost his popularity.

On May 20th, Turkey’s parliament approved in a secret ballot a constitutional amendment, stripping nearly a third of its lawmakers their parliamentary immunity from facing prosecution on politically-motivated and spurious terror charges. The measure disproportionally hit the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), the third-largest in parliament with 59 seats. The HDP’s success at the polls last year thwarted Mr Erdogan’s plans to give his long-ruling Islamist-rooted AK party a supermajority in the 550-seat legislature needed to call a public referendum on amending the 1982 constitution. HDP parliamentary deputies can now be prosecuted for alleged ties to the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and eventually removed from parliament (the PKK is considered as a terrorist organisation by the EU, the US and Turkey).

On May 22nd, Mr Erdogan replaced Ahmet Davutoglu, a pragmatic prime minister who personally negotiated a migration deal with EU leaders, with a loyalist, Binali Yildirimi. For Mr Erdogan’s taste, Mr Davutoglu was too independent. He saw his close relationships with EU leaders as a potential threat. Turkey’s president wasn’t also happy with Mr Davutoglu’s lack of enthusiasm for his plans to consolidate power. Mr Erdogan wants to change Turkey’s government system from a parliamentary to an all-powerful presidential one. The change will legitimise his one-man rule and reduce the executive’s accountability.

Mr Erdogan plans to take Turkey into the EU by 2023, when it will celebrate 100 years as a republic. However, given the lack of public enthusiasm across the bloc for further EU enlargement, Turkish membership in the EU will not be forthcoming in the foreseeable future. A privileged partnership is rather more realistic.

photo: Number 10 / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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  • Nic_223

    I do not understand why the EU allows itself to be blackmailed by the Sultan. Put sanctions on Turkey if they do not stem the flow/take back illegals. We tried the carrots now its time for the sticks.