Since the Syrian conflict started in 2011, Turkey has been taking in refugees, with 2.2 million currently residing in camps and being taken care of at the government’s expense (an estimated cost of 6.7 billion EUR). Its humanitarian assistance has been impressive, as were its logistical efforts: tent camps and caravan cities along the Syrian border.
The refugee situation has greater ramifications for Turkey than for the EU, as the number of refugees hosted there is also higher. Many Syrians were already integrated, but the structure of the Turkish society and economy, as well as the linguistic and ethnic differences, represent challenges for Syrians.
Further, unlike Germany, which can make use of the migrants on its labour market, Turkey is already over-saturated with unskilled workers and unemployment figures are already high (including youth unemployment). Turkey’s moves on the Syrian front also affected foreign direct investment (according to official figures, a drop from $22 billion in 2012 to $12.5 billion in 2014) as well as stability of the lira (dramatic devaluation).
Political and Foreign Policy Aspects
The political situation is by no means brighter, with the Justice and Development Party (AKP) losing absolute majority in the summer elections, and then failing to create a coalition. At the same time, the other political forces in Turkey have still failed to produce a strong leader capable of competing with President Erdoğan.
Nevertheless, critics argue that Turkey under Erdoğan passed from “zero problems with neighbours” (the former Davutoğlu doctrine) to a ‘neighbourless’ foreign policy, in which neighbours are either torn by civil wars or unfriendly towards Turkey. In the east, violence persists and the Kurds – including the Syrian Kurdish Popular Protection Units (YPG), partner of the allegedly terrorist group Turkish Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) – are becoming more vocal due to Russia’s intervention in Syria which some perceive as a slap in the face for Turkey and as proof of its failed diplomacy.
Brussels’ View on Syria as a Turkish Election Issue
Early elections are expected for 1 November. In Brussels, leaders fear Turkey’s interest in Syria is partly an electoral campaign move, being also linked to Erdoğan’s broader strategy in the region and his way of dealing with the PKK. In the summer elections, Turkey’s Kurds made historic parliamentary gains, alarming the AKP.
Manifestations of this polarization have occurred recently in the Turkish and Kurdish European diasporas. Indeed, the anti-terrorism political rallies that took place in Strasbourg (4 October) and Brussels (5 October) confirmed an0 inclination to make sure the Turkish position would be heard loud and clear by Western leaders. Following the recent rise of terrorist attacks by the PKK, and Turkish military action against the group, Erdoğan’s message focused on the Turkish soldiers killed in the recent clashes with Kurdish separatists and did not mention ISIS or other threats. On the Kurdish side, many NGOs also participated in a rally voicing criticism against the Turkish president.
How Did the EU End Up in this Crisis?
Before returning to the subject of the latest EU-Turkey developments that came with President Erdoğan’s recent visit to Brussels, we should note what other efforts the EU has pledged to take regarding the overall migrant crisis.
In August 2015 the number of asylum applicants peaked, reaching a record high of 720,000 applications being registered in the EU from the beginning of the year. Some 33% of applicants are of Syrian origin, 13% Afgani, 8% Iraqi, 4% Eritrean, and so on. Acc0rding to the European Asylum System Office (EASO) standards, the highest recognition rate (that is, the chance of receiving a positive response to the asylum claim) is mainly granted to 93% Syrians followed by 85% Iraqi claims, 84% Eritreas and 83% stateless persons. Although they are facing conflict and possible persecution, Ukrainians and Nigerians have very low recognition rates.
Setting aside the roots of the latest migration wave, such as the Arab Spring and Western military interventions in the Middle East, the EU’s main internal challenge came from the lack of coherent implementation of EU legislation in most of its Member States, especially the receiving ones (Greece and Italy).
Although EU funding was available to implement the Common European Asylum System, many Member States were caught unprepared by this influx of refugees/migrants. Some of the problems they face are a lack of proper welcome and reception conditions, overburdened capacities, the scarce availability of social workers and the lack of a proper identification mechanism.
Another challenge relates to the fact that migrants are choosing to keep on the move, refusing to stay in the first country in which they arrive. The Dublin rules in place stating asylum seeker should lodge their applications in the first country they arrive fail to apply.
Besides migrants’ economic interests, this is a consequence of the unequal treatment and outcome of the asylum claims between Member States, migrants heading to the Western and Northern countries that offer better conditions and are known to accept asylum claims.
Assisting EU Front-line Countries, International Organizations and Third Countries
With the EU’s newest measures and proposals, the front-line states (e.g. Italy and Greece) will be assisted in welcoming, identifying and digitally finger-printing the migrants in reception and registration centers at ‘hotspots’, from where they will be either returned or relocated to another Member State.
The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and World Food Programme (WFP) will also receive some EU funding (200 million EUR) to help cope with the humanitarian situation, which is worsening due to insufficient international funding. It is not yet sure where the money will be coming from, whether from the EU budget or from national contributions, but the signal is that external partners should be assisted with coping with the refugees’ crisis.
More Diplomacy and Coordination: Luxembourg and Valletta
More international diplomatic efforts, including from the countries in the region, are needed to fight against the root cause of this wave of migration and to bring peace to Syria and in the region. High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Mogherini underlined that the UN and EU, alongside the key regional and global partners, should lead the way to negotiations.
In this sense, some future meetings hold hope for finding solutions. There will be a high-level conference on the Western Balkans route in Luxembourg on 8 October and a Summit in Valletta on 11-12 November (called upon at the European Council in April 2015), focusing on assistance to partner countries, strengthening cooperation on returns, and better targeting of development cooperation and investments in Africa.
Syria’s neighbouring countries, Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan are already hosting millions of refugees. With the aim of better securing the EU’s external borders, substantial aid will be offered in exchange for strengthened cooperation with these third-countries.
A stable situation must be reached soon not to threaten the existence of the Schengen Zone, or the EU’s capabilities in the future. Many Member States recently reintroduced temporary border checks or closed their borders altogether, leading to a turbulent end to September in the Western Balkans and Central Eastern Europe. The Western Balkans and Africa will also be supported by the EU in dealing with the migratory waves.
The EU’s Regional Trust Fund to Increase
The EU will now increase its Regional Trust Fund in response to the Syrian crisis (the ‘Madad Fund’). When it comes to the southern corridor sea route, Turkey is also a key partner in this light. The European Commission has cooperation with third countries in mind, ready to mobilize up to 1 billion EUR to Turkey over the next two years. Humanitarian aid for refugees will account for 1.7 billion EUR, and 17 million EUR are planned for Serbia and Macedonia.
Regarding the shipwrecks that frequently occur on migrant vessels headed to Italy, the EU plans to enhance its ties with Libya and call for an EU-UN surveillance-based naval operation. The European Union military operation in the Southern Central Mediterranean (EUNAVFOR MED), as it is known, was already agreed upon on 22 June 2015, targeting Libyan human traffickers.
Stronger External Borders Measures Bely the EU’s ‘Humanitarian Face’
Having in mind the European Agenda on Migration, as part of the implementation package, on Wednesday 23 September, the European Commission came up with a new series of initiatives focusing on the EU’s external border management with a more generous envelope (1.3 million EUR) to be allocated to the EU agencies (FRONTEX, EUROPOL, EASO) and emergency funds for managing the influx of migrants and refugees.
It seems, therefore, that in spite of the humanitarian face it has been trying to show in the media, that the EU is doing all it can to keep out refugees. EU leaders’ conclusions following the extraordinary Council meeting, convened by Donald Tusk on 23 September, was meant to “tackle the dramatic situation at our external borders and strengthen controls at those borders” that are confronted with a high influx of refugees and illegal passing.
Croatian Comments on the Turkey-Greece Migrant Situation, and Restrictions on Frontex’s Role
According to European Commission data in 2014, with the help of smuggling and trafficking networks, more than 276,000 migrants (mostly from Syria, Eritrea, Afghanistan, Mali and Kosovo) irregularly entered the EU.
Since 2014, the Eastern Mediterranean route has been the predominant one for migrants. Greece has been overwhelmed by an influx of migrants – by late August 2015, with more than 160,000 entered the country – from Syria and Afghanistan reaching its islands (e.g. Lesvos, Chios, Samos and Kos) from Turkey.
At the 23 September European Council meeting, Croatian Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic asked for effective measures to control the maritime routes between Turkey and Greece. In order to tackle this matter, Frontex and its joint operations (e.g. Triton) support Member States in case of increased migratory pressure.
However, Frontex has no executive power and only coordinates joint operations for the purpose of border checks and surveillance at the EU’s external borders. Furthermore, according to its mandate Frontex is limited to operations on EU shores, and thus in this context, Turkey must play an important role on the non-EU part of the sea.
EU Expectations from Turkey
This migrant crisis has also brought sporadic a trade war to the Western Balkans and revived old disputes on the control of external maritime borders. Greece and Turkey have a historic Aegean border dispute, while Turkey and Israel argue over which has the right for search and rescue in overlapping waters. The same problem applies to Morocco and Spain and, within the EU, between Italy and Malta. Diplomatically speaking, Russia’s emphatic new presence in Syria will only stir the waters even more.
In an attempt to ease the refugees’ situation, Turkey proposed the establishment of safe zones in the north of Syria to welcome the refugees, also creating a buffer zone on Syrian soil against any group antagonistic to Turkey. However, Russia’s moves in Syria might hamper Turkey’s Syrian policy, and its attempts to limit the territorial advances of the Kurdish YPG along the border. Indeed, preventing the Syrian Kurds from creating a territorial linkage with Iraqi and Turkish Kurds has been a strategic goal of Turkey’s since the beginning of the conflict.
EU leaders are of the view that the dialogue with Turkey will in future have to be strengthened at all levels. A first step in this sense, they say, was President Erdoğan’s 5 October visit to Brussels (his most recent previous one had been in 2014). On his latest visit, the president met top EU leaders like Donald Tusk, Jean-Claude Juncker, and Martin Schulz. Separately, Erdoğan met the king of Belgium.
During the talks, the EU focused on setting up “hotspots” for refugee reception in Turkey, on strengthening the borders and increasing the fight against people smugglers. The Union is asking Turkey to cooperate with Greek coastguards, coordinated by Frontex, for preventing refuges from reaching EU shores.
Turkey’s Expectations from the EU, and Common Criticisms of It
Turkey has already expressed its criticism of what it sees as insufficient financial assistance offered by the EU for setting up the six new camps (partly financed by the EU). Turkey also contends that these are an insufficient number of camps, considering the large number of refugees.
Furthermore, though the EU will probably take up to half a million asylum seekers, Turkey will be assisted to socially integrate more Syrian refugees into its own society, and pushed to make more efforts, together with Greece, to prevent them from taking the clandestine journey to the EU in the first place. There seems to be some resistance from the Turkish side, sources note, indicating that the government is unhappy with these financing offers and general proposals from the EU.
President Erdoğan’s visit, which came on the occasion of the opening of the Europalia Arts Festival (in which Turkey is starring this year) was thus far from a ceremonial visit. His discussions with EU leaders also covered Russia’s alleged violation of Turkey’s airspace, which was called ‘unacceptable’ by the secretary-general of NATO. Officials in Brussels indicate that the approach might vary; the EU is worrying about Russia in general, whi1le Turkey’s focus is on the implications of Russia’s involvement in Syria with regard to the Kurdish rebels.
While Turkey still hopes to resume accession negotiation with the EU, it remains to be seen what role the refugee crisis will play in the Readmission Agreement negotiations and the visa liberalization dialogue, one of the only negotiating card of real value for Turkey.
Indeed, it is interesting to note that despite the heated domestic disagreements between the AKP of President Erdoğan and the CHP opposition party, led by Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, both parties fundamentally criticize the EU for the migrant crisis and denounce the PKK as terrorists.
In his own five-day European tour, Kılıçdaroğlu himself recently met with top EU leaders and reiterated these issues, warning that Turks are feeling like the EU wants their country “to be part of the Middle East” and not Europe, according to a press release. According to the opposition leader, it is the EU, not Turkey, which is “losing” from the current impasse.
In this light, it will be interesting to see how the expected fierce elections of November will re-orient Turkish policy to the EU – and vice versa – as the migration crisis continues into the winter.