COMMENT: Turkey-EU talks are all about visas

COMMENT: Turkey-EU talks are all about visas
Critics have reviled German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who drove the rapprochement with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan last autumn, for double-speak.
By Iana Dreyer in Brussels March 7, 2016

Views on what is happening in the EU-Turkey relationship are sharply divided, depending on your standpoint. Is Brussels ignoring its own values by promising EU accession to a country that is sliding into authoritarianism, in return for stemming the flow of millions of refugees? Or is Turkey a true and secular ally for the West in a terrorist-riven unstable region? Or is the whole story about giving or denying Turks visas to Europe?

The bottom line is that the situation in Turkey has become so confused that no one seems happy with the policy choices on offer. Turkey has been a Nato member for more than 50 years and should be the West’s natural ally in trying to bring the Syrian conflict to an end. It remains a secular state in a region endangered by Islamic extremism. But the increasingly authoritarian actions of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan have become more and more difficult to ignore, and clash with fundamental European values.

The West, and especially Germany, were uncomfortable with the idea of Turkey joining the EU trade club before the Syrian conflict broke out and Erdogan took over, but Chancellor Angela Merkel is under intense pressure to end the refugee crisis in Europe and is trying to find a middle path through the morass where one maybe doesn't exist. Officials in Brussels understand the meaning of the world “compromise” better than maybe any other capital in the world, but even they are struggling over the Turkish question.

“They EU must at least stand by its principles and not compromise them,” the liberal Dutch MEP Marietje Schaake said ahead of the EU Turkey migration summit on March 7.

Others, like Günter Seufert, from the German think tank SWP, believe that Ankara’s request to revive the accession process last autumn “offers an opportunity for the EU”, as in his view this is the only means left for the EU to in any way influence domestic policies in Turkey.

The March 7 summit is a follow-up on an EU-Turkey understanding reached on November 29 that both sides would henceforth engage in “a structured and more frequent high-level dialogue”, “have regular summits twice a year” instead of only once a year so far, relaunch Turkey’s EU accession talks, and accelerate an already initiated visa liberalisation process for Turkish citizens travelling to the EU.

Those proposals could be taken as rhetorical flourishes that commit the EU to nothing, but the promise of €3bn in “humanitarian aid” for refugees located in Turkey was real and linked to well defined deliverables on Turkey’s side. The money is part of a “Joint Action Plan” in which the EU demanded that “results must be achieved, in particular, in stemming the influx of irregular migrants”.  This was a clearly defined bribe, paid to Turkey to keep as many refugees coming mainly – but not only – from Syria on its territory, and offered separately and untied to the decades long EU-accession process.

The overt nature of the cash-for-keep-your-refugees deal already disturbed liberal voices in the EU but to make Brussels’s chicanery even more obvious bureaucrats sat on the publication of the European Commission annual ‘progress report’ on Turkey scheduled for November 2015. The report openly slates Turkey’s recent track record on civil liberties and human rights, but was clearly delayed in order not to cast a shadow over the November summit. The decision incensed Turkish human right campaigners who accused the EU of “selling out” to Ankara for little else than the political expediency of saving European political backsides.

In 2015, EU countries received about 1mn asylum applications – half of them from Syrians fleeing the civil war in their country–  with close to half of these applications filed in Germany. Critics have reviled German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who drove the rapprochement with Turkey last autumn, for double-speak: proclaiming that her country was open to Syrian refugees on the one hand, while giving in to pressure from the rightwing of her party and her Bavarian coalition partner the CSU party to send refugees home.

The pull-me-push-you politics of the refugee crisis in German has left Merkel with a political hair-splitting exercise designed to please everyone and doomed to failure: the policy now is to weed out so-called “economic migrants” from allegedly ‘safe’ countries in the Balkans, Afghanistan or Africa who have been arriving en masse to Germany, from with the “genuine refugees” from Syria seeking asylum from a civil war that has killed a quarter of a million people. Merkel says Europe has a moral and legal obligation to host these refugees, but she would prefer it if they stayed in Turkey.

Turkey already hosts more than 2.5mn Syrian refugees on its territory. Ankara for its part is attempting to milk its rare bit of leverage over the EU, and has been making big demands for its new relationship, while using increasing blatant strong arm tactics at home: the week before the March 7 summit the government seized control of Turkey’s largest independent newspaper Zaman, which has been hailed by some and the beginning of the end of any sort of opposition press in the country.

And Erdogan seems to be pretty sure he can get away with anything ahead of the summit taking place on March 7. The EU has already announced it was releasing the first tranche of €95mn of humanitarian aid for refugee children’s education and for food. A progress report on Turkey’s visa liberalisation path released on March 4 states that, “Turkey has started to introduce stricter visa and admission rules in respect of nationals coming from countries which are sources of significant irregular onward migration from Turkey to the EU. In addition, Turkey has continued to strengthen its overall border surveillance and management capacities.”

More importantly, Turkey promised to readmit non-Syrian migrants who had passed through Turkey before entering the EU. The move is proving highly controversial in human rights milieus and the UN warned on March 6 that such a move is illegal under international and EU law. Brussels has said nothing.

“I love you, me neither”

The moral outrage provoked by these recent developments in the EU-Turkey relationship does not mean that what is happening is new. Ever since the EU launched membership talks with Turkey in 2005, the relationship has been one best described by the title of a Serge Gainsbourg's song  “Je t’aime, moi non plus” (I love you, me neither).

Three years into the accession process, which Turkey had been waiting for for more than four decades to see kick-started, key member states, first France under President Nicolas Sarkozy, then Germany under Chancellor Merkel, effectively put a halt on the process. None of the centre-right leaders were comfortable with the idea of admitting into the EU a country that was seen by many as “too big, too poor and too Muslim”.

In EU strategic thinking – spearheaded initially under mainly German and Commission leadership in the 1980s and 1990s – offering EU accession in return for democratic reforms is seen as a means to democratise and stabilise the continent and its wider neighbourhood. But after Central and Eastern European countries joined the bloc in 2004 and 2007, Western EU member states lost faith the virtues of enlargement. Their low-skilled workers felt the heft of competition from industrial outsourcing to new parts of Europe and from migrants coming to work in Western Europe. Turkey has been the prime victim of ‘enlargement fatigue’.

Another complicating factor has been Cyprus. The divided island, whose Turkish-occupied north is recognised as a state by Ankara only, became an EU member in 2004. Since then Nicosia has been vetoing the opening of Turkish accession chapters: as of today only 14 out of 35 chapters have been opened, with topics like energy, justice and home affairs blocked by Cyprus.

Nicosia has also blocked moves initiated in 2015 to revive trade negotiations with Turkey – independently of the accession process – aimed at modernising the 1995 EU-Turkey customs union. Ankara is pinning hopes on the ongoing negotiations on political reconciliation and reunification that could lead to a referendum in Cyprus this year. This could boost Turkey’s relationship with the EU. But the Cypriot process remains fragile.

In recent years, the EU has become highly conservative on migration. Since the onset of the economic crisis in 2008 it has been signing so-called Mobility Partnerships and readmission agreements with its neighbours in North and Sub-Saharan Africa and in the Caucasus and Eastern Europe. In return for modest visa facilitation processes for their citizens to visit the EU, these countries are, among others, obliged to help keep out illegal migrants transiting through their countries and readmit rejected migrants. Deals to help stem migration flows were struck with even the most unsavoury regimes, such as Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya, before the country fell apart in 2011. Turkey too signed a readmission agreement in 2014.

Given the scale of the current migration flows, it is not certain the deal on refugees expected on  March 7 will work: “I doubt they have found a lasting solution to the refugee flows independent of a solution to the Syrian civil war,” Fadi Hakura, Associate Fellow at Chatham House tells bne IntelliNews.

Few are fooled by the move to accelerate accession talks initiated in late 2015. “Neither the EU nor Turkey are committed to a robust and credible accession process”, Chatham House’s Hakura said. To Hakura, “this is essentially playing to the gallery. Turkey’s single priority is to eliminate visas for Turks visiting the EU”.

Turkish visa liberalisation will be perhaps the only potential tangible outcome of an overhyped revival of EU-Turkey relations, and stemming the flood of refugees will be Europe’s pay-off.