Refugees and Displaced People in Turkey as a Bargaining Weapon in the EU- Turkey Relations

The EU-Turkey agreement was ratified in 2016 with the purpose to end illegal human trafficking and smuggling along the eastern Mediterranean route. According to it, Turkey had been required to close and foresee its northern borders, while the EU had been committed to paying Turkey €6 billion for the 2016-2019 period, in order to address refugees’ and host communities’ needs on humanitarian aid, education, and socio-economic support (€3 billion from the EU budget and €3 billion paid by Member States). Furthermore, according to the so-called “exchange clause” it had been provided that “for each refugee sent back to Turkey, the EU is obliged to take and place one migrant in the EU territory”.

Thanks to it, currently, the arrivals had remained 97% lower than before the Treaty became operational, reception conditions for refugees were improved and organized, and legal alternative migratory channels for Syrian refugees were opened. Moreover, such a deal reached immediate enthusiastic results already in 2016. Indeed, compared to the year before: almost one million people have not taken dangerous routes to get to the European Union, and more than 1,000 have not lost their lives trying.

However, despite the obvious benefits it produced, EU-Turkey relations are not tensions-free. This conflictual behavior is particularly evident when it comes to the discourse over an eventual Turkish membership. Indeed, despite Turkey had applied for the EEC in 1987, and it had been one of the first countries to apply for the Council of Europe, remaining unanswered shows how cultural-religious differences are still deeply affecting international interactions. Due to it, the Turkish migrants’ management and the EU membership discourse began being considered two faces of the same coin, and it brought to circular bargaining diplomacy, where: Turkish failures in securing Syrian refugees’ condition triggered EU concerns about the future of an enlargement toward the Middle East, and, Turkish leaders, in turn, considered their country internationally segregated by religious and cultural differences.

What permitted such a debate to start is the new categorization of Turkey as a Transit Country. In fact, regarding migration, such a term started being applied to Turkey two decades ago (when it was added to the already existing conditions of the state of origin and of destination), and it regards those “migrants [who] come to a country of destination with the intention of going and staying in another“ one. Turkey has always been a fundamental cornerstone to link Africa and the Middle East to the European continent, and its migrants had always been divided into two main categories: “the first […] involves the influx of foreigners mostly coming from the Eastern European countries, […] who have streamed into Turkey in search of jobs“ (Turkey as the State of Destination); while the second consists of those Turks who leave their homes in search of better opportunities in the West (Turkey as the State of Origin). However, due to Assad’s civil war, and to the consequent start of the migration crisis in Europe, a further phenomenon erupted tremendously: one of the Middle Eastern citizens who were forced to abandon their homes and were obliged to cross Turkey in order to move to Western countries in search of peace and job opportunities. These Transit Migrants began being considered more and more a worrying topic by both Ankara and Brussels, and as it has been stated in an EU conference: “the growing importance of irregular/ “illegal” transit migration through Turkey, together with the use of the country’s territory as a staging post for onward migration toward the West”, pose a major and, sometimes, unsustainable challenge for both the Turks and the European Member States.

Regarding Turkey’s accession, European Member States seem to be composed of two distinct groups: traditional supporters and objectors. Countries such as Sweden, Italy, and Spain, cooperate with Turkey and encourage a future membership accession (even recognizing the existence of multiple obstacles); while some others, such as France and Germany, firmly oppose it by openly declaring that Turkey has no place in Europe. As a result, the treaty functioning perceptions are mixed and contradictory in both parties. In fact, while several EU MSs argue that the Turkish government is not doing enough (even if the smugglers’ number decreased in last years), the Turkish local agencies claim to be doing their best, and that the EU has failed in sharing a true commitment on controlling the refugees’ situation. In this environment, however, a further EU enlargement toward the Middle East can represent an incredibly helpful step. Particularly, other than establishing a proper European “foot on the ground” in the region, which is still missing (apart from France and UK, when it was an EU member), such a process would be extremely useful for economic and geopolitical reasons. Indeed, other than launching a positive international message (“the EU is finally ready to accept Islamic countries”), it would also mean, on the one hand, becoming economically independent from Russia’s, China’s, and Middle East countries’ oil pipelines (since it would benefit from the Turkish gas natural resources), and geopolitically, in consisting in a pivotal turning point for the fight against Terrorism (indeed, through a further control of the Eastern Mediterranean route, illegal migratory channels would be blocked, and potential terrorists could be more easily recorded and arrested).

However, to do so, changes within the EU must be first carried out. Indeed, to prepare an eventual Turkish accession, and to manage the shift of the southern EU borders in a lens of Human Security (since the hosted Syrian refugees in Turkey would enter directly in the Union’s territories), the EU should first work to properly modify the Dublin Treaty, by establishing a new agreement about the reallocation of migrants, and secondly, it should overcome the internal dissatisfactions over an enlargement toward Muslim culture. Such an aspect may represent probably the most complicated one. Indeed, after the recent Terrorist attacks, concerns over Islam had widespread everywhere across the Union, and MSs would be more interested in preserving their own self-interests rather than promoting the communitarian ones.

Nevertheless, on the contrary, it is also true that the Turkish government has recently been subject to many debates over the effective degree of freedom on the ground. Many academics and journalists had been arrested and a lack of political stability and democracy had been widely denounced. The same UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’Ad al Hussein, has recently expressed his concerns over the citizens’ fundamental rights breaches in the still ongoing war against Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), and many world leaders are still worried by the belligerent decision of Turkey to intervene in the Syrian Civil War. In this sense, emblematic may also be the recent political arm-wrestling with the EU over a western intervention in Syria. Namely, Turkish authorities tried to “blackmail” the EU by affirming that, without a proper EU commitment in Assad’s civil war, Turkey will open its northern frontiers and thousands of refugees would enter unrestrainedly, and insecurely, in Europe.

In response to it, however, it is also important to mention that the recent shrink of Turkey’s export market (due to the recent pandemic) may give the EU a new bargaining instrument. Indeed, since the country’s economy is highly dependent on trade with the EU (with which it has a Customs Union agreement), an eventual suspension of Schengen, and the EU- Turkey economic channels, would cause an increase in both the organizational and the expenditure costs; and, as a result, Turkish goods to and from the EU would be stopped more frequently and presumably for much longer than the internal EU ones. Therefore, the bargaining diplomacy is still ongoing, and the way in which the EU will respond would help Turkey in becoming not only a regional actor but a global leader too. In fact, it is in Turkey’s interest that Europe’s internal market remains borderless and opened to them and that discourse over accession is brought on.

For all these reasons, today, the EU-Turkey deal is not working effectively. The longer the full implementation of the deal takes, the deeper the distrust and recriminations between the two sides are likely to grow. In fact, as we may see, such agreement touches upon several interlinked, multifaceted and, sometimes, contrasting positions among both sides: from one side, Turkey is trying to escape from its Regional Power role to become a Global one (by accessing the EU and to its enormous amount of resources), while, on the other, the EU advances an enlargement discourse toward the Middle East only when it suits its interests. In fact, in the Turk perspective, the membership topic is never truly on the table, since the “EU [prefers] to create [more] a neighboring shared legal framework, [rather than] integrate it”.

For these reasons, it is evident that the Refugee Agreement, more than cooperating on the common shared target of refugees and displaced people security, is aimed at promoting the actors’ self-centered interests (namely, preserving the existing status quo for the EU, and expanding the Turkish on a more global level). Today, the subsequent incompatibilities have sharply invalidated the existing accord, and a whole new format seems to be the only viable path. In this context, for instance, Diederik Samson proposed to individuate a group of „willing countries“ in order to resettle „hundreds of thousands of refugees per year from Turkey in the EU; in parallel to the return of all migrants from Greece to Turkey”. Such an approach would surely give immediate benefits since it would allow Ankara to combat human smuggling more efficiently, and it would put in place the necessary structures to take back refugees and migrants in security. However, on the opposite, do not consider the EU as a unified bloc would also leave MSs to face this challenge alone (complicated even further by the uncontrolled nature of the Schengen Area and by the Dublin’s Treaty provisions), and it would give internationally the wrong message (“the EU is no more a cohesive actor”). Instead of it, a rethinking of the basic units of the already existing Agreement and a true debate over the preparedness for the European Union to accept or not Turkey as a Member State can probably be more efficient. In fact, even if several internal problems must be firstly faced within both the two actors (such as the supporters VS objectors dynamic, and the necessary readdressing of the overall Turkish government’s direction toward a more “western” approach), “ironically, […] ‚illiberal‘ Turkey is [the only] well-positioned [country] to help ‚liberal‘ Europe” both in managing migrants’ flows and in enlarging economically, politically and culturally the European Union.

Written by Matteo Boccia