The EU and Turkey agreed in principle on March 7 at a summit in Brussels on a new plan to stem the flow of migrants. A final deal could be used by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to further tighten the screws on his opponents.
Actually, EU leaders and Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu were supposed talk about the details of an earlier deal struck back in November. But Ankara surprised Brussels with a new set of demands and proposals. Davutoglu asked for an extra €3bn on top of the previously agreed €3bn. He also demanded visa liberalisation for Turkish citizens by June and the acceleration of membership talks. In return, he pledged that Turkey would accept more asylum seekers returned from Europe and keep them inside the country.
The timing of the EU-Turkey summit could have not been more awkward. It was overshadowed by the Turkish government’s seizure of the independent newspaper Zaman. Moreover, while Davutoglu was shaking hands with EU leaders, a court in Istanbul ordered the seizure of the Cihan news agency, which is part of a wider crackdown on supporters of the US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, a foe of President Erdogan.
EU leaders have delayed a final decision on the migrant deal, which is sure to meet stiff opposition from the likes of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who will decry any attempt to foist a system that involves for every one migrant who has entered Europe illegally being sent back to Turkey, one migrant will be properly resettled in Europe. Orban’s spokesman, Zoltan Kovacs, told the BBC’s Today programme on March 8 that Hungary would always for vote for a “no settlement” policy, but might be prepared to vote for a voluntary system among EU members that is agreed at a later date.
Merkel called the plan “a breakthrough if it’s implemented”. Davutoglu will return for another EU summit on March 17-18.
If Europe approves the migration deal in its current form, Erdogan would probably read this as a sign that Brussels is willing to turn a blind eye to concerns about the growing authoritarianism in Turkey. He could then further turn the screw on his critics.
Erdogan must be aware that the migrant crisis poses an existential threat to the EU and he may be gambling that Europe needs Turkey, at least for now, more than Turkey needs Europe. The EU is also aware that any move that angers Erdogan could derail efforts to stop the flow of migrants.
In fact, by delaying the progress report on Turkey last year until after its November election, the EU had already made clear that it was willing to cooperate with Turkey at any cost, even if it means betraying its cherished fundamental democratic values.
In the delayed report published on November 10, Brussels emphasised an overall negative trend in the country’s respect for the rule of law and human rights. After several years of progress on freedom of expression, serious backsliding was seen over the past two years, said the report. Nothing has changed in Turkey since then; if anything, it’s gotten worse.
European Council President Donald Tusk said EU leaders raised the issue of media freedom with Davutoglu. “We all know how important freedom of speech and expression are, these are fundamental human rights. Without them, there cannot be the healthy development of any culture, of any society,” he said. “I am saying all this because we cannot stay indifferent to the concerns raised in this context about what is now happening in Turkey.”
But there are few signs that the EU is prepared to do anything that might put a comprehensive migration deal with Turkey at risk.
In fact, only three days before the EU summit, the Turkish government took control of Zaman, the country’s top-selling opposition newspaper. This was a very bold move, but Ankara took the risk. Perhaps, some say, this was a test to see Brussel’s reaction, which so far has amounted only to words.
And then on the night of March 7, while the Turkish prime mnister was shaking hands in Brussels, a court in Istanbul appointed an administrator to run the Gulen-linked Cihan news agency following a request from a state prosecutor. Both Cihan and Zaman belong to the same Feza Gazetecilik Media group.
Erdogan accuses Gulen and his followers of infiltrating the country’s police force, media and judiciary, establishing what the president calls “a parallel state” to overthrow him. Gulen denies the charges.
Cihan was the only independent media outlet that fully covers election results with its wide network of reporters on the ground as soon as the votes started to count. With the seizure of Cihan, the state-owned Anadolu agency remains the only source that can fully cover elections.
There had been rumours ahead of the November poll that the authorities could go after Cihan and silence it just before the election.
PM Davutoglu last week dismissed claims that the seizure of Zaman is part of the government crackdown on its critics. The takeover of the newspaper was a legal, not a politically motivated decision, said Davutoglu.
Turkey ranks 149th among the 180 countries in the Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index.
If the EU accepts Turkey’s new proposals and agrees to ease visa requirements and accelerate membership talks, Erdogan will probably be the main beneficiary of this deal, since he can promote it as a personal victory. He will claim that he has turned Turkey into such a powerful country that the West bows to its demands, and all citizens should be proud of this.
Erdogan has been arguing for some time that a presidential system is what Turkey needs if the nation of 78mn wants a better, stronger economy, and a more respected place in world politics.
Erdogan is seeking to change the country’s constitution to give him more executive powers. But his critics fear, probably rightly, that an executive presidential system would provide him with too much, unchecked power.
He wants to put constitutional amendments to a referendum. And if the EU accepts Turkey’s new migrant deal, this would make him more popular and could increase his chances of victory in any possible referendum on this.
The main problem for Erdogan is the parliamentary arithmetic: his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has 317 deputies in the 550-seat parliament, short of the 330 votes required to put any constitutional amendments to a referendum.
Erdogan and his AKP appear determined to push for a referendum anyway. PM Davutoglu signalled that he would not waste his time holding fruitless negotiations with opposition parties. “There will be no bargaining over a new constitution,” said Davutoglu on March 6, adding that the government will seek to put the matter to a referendum.
But how could this be possible given the opposition parties’ reluctance? One option is that Erdogan and the AKP could exploit the internal rifts within the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), the third largest political grouping in parliament with 40 seats. Some MHP lawmakers could support the AKP’s bid to change the constitution. Alternatively, the AKP could call another parliamentary election, following the ones in June and November last year.
Both Erdogan and Davutoglu have dismissed the idea of having another snap election. But if the government did decide to call an early election, it would probably need to further intensity the war with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (HDP) to whip up enough nationalist sentiment in order to increase Erdogan’s popularity among nationalist voters. More chaos and more clashes in the country’s south-eastern provinces could also push the HDP below the 10% electoral threshold, which will mean more deputies in parliament for the AKP that is the second largest party in the Kurdish cities.
Nobody knows what Erdogan’s plans are, but he will definitely use any possible deal with the EU over migrants as political capital to invest in a referendum, and he will likely tighten the screws on his opponents and critics if he regards the EU deal as a blank check. But the question is how much the EU will tolerate before it risks losing a deal on migrants.