Kivanc Dundar in Istanbul -
Faced with a torrent of refugees from war-torn Syria, EU leaders have all of a sudden rediscovered Turkey’s strategic importance. But Turkey seems to be determined to drive a hard bargain to win significant concessions from the 28-nation bloc.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who only two weeks ago reiterated her opposition to Turkey joining the EU, agreed during a visit to Istanbul on October 18 to work to re-energise Ankara’s stalled membership talks and to relax visa requirements in exchange for Turkey’s badly-needed co-operation in stemming the flow of refugees into Europe.
Europe needs a deal with Turkey as intensifying fighting in Syria threatens to propel a new wave of refugees to head to the EU’s frontiers, many of them through Turkey.
In return it appears ready to forget about its misgivings over President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s creeping authoritarianism. Turkey’s EU accession talks have been long stalled because of Europe’s concerns over Ankara’s human rights record and the government crackdown on dissent.
The timing of the EU’s sweeteners and Merkel’s hasty trip to Istanbul could not have been better for Erdogan and the ruling AKP, when the country is experiencing one of its worst political crises in decades. According to media reports, the EU will also push back publication of its annual Progress Report on Turkey — which is highly critical of its democratic shortcomings – until after the November general elections. Critics fear that the EU’s support may in fact embolden Erdogan to expand his powers and further restrict freedoms.
No done deal yet
After EU leaders at a summit on October 15 offered Turkey the prospect of earlier visa liberalision, opening new chapters in the accession talks and financial aid, Merkel travelled to Istanbul, meeting with Erdogan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu in an effort to iron out the differences between Brussels and Turkey.
The EU wants Turkey to do more to tighten its border security, put up more guards along its coasts, and sign an agreement to accept migrants from Turkey who are expelled from Europe. In return, Turkey came forward with a list of demands: financial help – Ankara says it has already spent close to $8bn to look after more than 2mn Syrian refugees - an acceleration of its long-stalled accession talks, and visa-free travel for its citizens to the Schengen area. Turkey should have a seat at EU summits, Davutoglu also demanded.
Despite intense talks, the EU offer is not a done deal yet. “Several issues are still under discussion”, said Davutoglu on Sunday following the meeting with Merkel.
Turkey, whose $800bn economy faces multiple risks, needs money, and a lot of it, to contain the influx, reportedly, demanding up to €3bn from the EU.
“This is about additional money, as we understand it; we still have to talk about the details, of course,” commented Merkel in Istanbul, admitting that the EU has not done much to help with Turkey’s financial burden so far.
Even though the German Chancellor promised to work towards securing financial assistance and the opening of new chapters, she stopped short of endorsing Turkey’s admission to the bloc. “Turkey’s full membership is an open-ended issue,” reiterated Merkel.
The EU also needs to overcome its internal divisions as well as old hostilities towards Turkey to match its words with action. In a sign of how difficult it will be to find common ground on Turkey, Cyprus said on October 19 that it would not lift its objections to Turkish accession negotiations. The reasons Cyprus blocked accession talks with Turkey are still valid, said Foreign Minister Ioannis Kasoulides, referring specifically to two chapters pertaining to judiciary and fundamental rights, and justice, freedom and security.
A candidate for EU membership since 1999, Turkey began formal accession talks in 2005. Ankara has opened 14 out of 35 chapters since then and has managed to close only one.
In the hope of securing the West’s help in establishing a safe zone in Syria, Davutoglu warned that the battle for the Syrian city of Aleppo may trigger a new wave of migration. But this idea has gained little traction from its allies, and has become almost impossible now as Syria’s airspace has become crowded, with Russian and US flying missions there. Russia has been hitting anti-government forces in support of the Damascus regime since late September, while the US keeps bombing suspected Islamic State targets from Turkey’s airbases.
Mending fences with the EU is important for Erdogan to boost his image, but, it is a question mark whether the latest apparent reconciliation between Ankara and Brussels could be a game changer in the Turkish elections that could help the AKP regain a majority in parliament.
A survey by PEW found that a majority in Turkey (55%) still favour joining the EU, a figure that has not changed much in the last five years, even though 49% of Turks have negative opinions of the EU versus 33% having positive views.
But Turkish voters have more vital concerns than EU membership. According to a survey conducted in October by the polling company Metropoll, 47.2% of Turks think that the country’s main problem is terror (ie the renewed clashes with the PKK guerillas), followed by economic problems (17.8%), the peace process (6.3%), corruption 2.4%, and Erdogan/AKP (1%). The EU accession was not on Turks’ immediate agenda, at least in early October, suggests the survey. So, a deal on refugees may lessen the EU’s problems but it cannot resolve Turkish voters’ urgent political, social and economic concerns.
Everybody in Turkey knows that this 78mn population Muslim country marred by violence and social tensions will not be granted visa-free access to Europe anytime soon. No doubt, Erdogan and the AKP will still try to use the mooted deal with the to impress voters, but given the deep polarisation in the country the ongoing talks with the EU may not have a major impact on the outcome of the elections, which are expected to produce yet another hung parliament.
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