EU needs to up its game on Turkey

October 19, 2015

The European Union may be dropping the ball over Turkey. The bloc has benefited for years from a stable country with an improving economy on its southeast border, insulating it from mayhem in the Middle East. But this buffer state is increasingly leaky and troubled, resulting in economic as well as political repercussions. So far the European Union’s engagement with Turkey has been too little, too late.

The turmoil in Turkey is mounting. The war in neighboring Syria has led to an influx of 2.2 million migrants; bombings earlier this month killed 102 people in Ankara, the capital, at a rally that was called to promote peace between the government and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or P.K.K., the Kurdish militant group. On Friday, the Turkish military shot down a drone — thought by the United States to be Russian — in Turkish airspace near Syria.

Meanwhile, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian attempts to shore up his political base are dividing Turkish society and pummeling its currency, the lira. Erdogan has tried to drive a wedge between the majority and the large Kurdish minority before elections set for Nov. 1. He has also taken serious steps to silence the media.

All this matters to the European Union because hundreds of thousands of the migrants arriving in Turkey — not just Syrians, but Iraqis, Afghans and several other nationalities — in turn head towards the bloc.

In time, the influx may be a boon to the European Union’s ageing society, bolstering its workforce to create economic growth. But, for now, it is increasing budgetary pressure on already stretched governments and causing political ructions within the European Union.

On Friday, for example, Hungary closed its border with Croatia, another European Union member, in an effort to stop the flow of people arriving from Turkey via the Balkans.

The refugee crisis is also a factor that could drive Britain to vote for an exit from the European Union, a step that would damage Britain and the rest of the bloc economically. Quitting the European Union could actually make it harder for London to control the flow of asylum seekers because it would get less cooperation from its former partners. But eurosceptics are spuriously saying the opposite — and seem to be persuading the British people that they have a point.

The European Union has finally woken up to these threats. The centrepiece of its policy is an action plan the European Commission agreed on with Turkey on Thursday, and which European Union leaders endorsed at their summit meeting later that evening. The snag is that the very next day, Turkey poured cold water on the plan, saying the proposal hadn’t taken final shape.

The action plan — even if only a draft — is a step in the right direction. Its goal is to ensure that refugees who arrive in Turkey stay there rather than head to the European Union.

Europe is dangling various carrots to persuade Ankara to sign up to such a policy: money to help with the influx of migrants, the gradual liberalisation of visas for Turkish citizens visiting the European Union, and a re-energising of Turkey’s bid to join the bloc.

It may be that some such deal can be done eventually. But Ankara is understandably trying to extract the best terms. For example, the commission initially promised 500 million euros, or nearly $570 million. After the Turks made clear that wasn’t enough, the European Union leaders discussed a larger, 3 billion euro sum — which Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany said seemed reasonable given that Ankara itself had spent 7 billion euros on addressing the crisis. The Turkish foreign minister, though, then said the country needed at least 3 billion euros in just the first year — the implication being that the total bill could be much bigger.

Meanwhile, Erdogan accused the European Union of insincerity in promising to revive talks on Turkish membership. He is right to be sceptical. Admitting any country to the European Union requires the unanimous approval of all of its member countries, which now number 28. There doesn’t seem much chance of getting such overwhelming support to bring in Turkey, with its 78 million mainly Muslim people, given the rise of anti-immigration and anti-Muslim sentiment in parts of the bloc.

Europe’s approach to Turkey has been one of paying insufficient attention to the country, followed by panic. It isn’t just that the draft action plan was rushed; Merkel also went to Istanbul for talks with Erdogan on Sunday, a move that could be seen as interfering in the upcoming election.

Now is not the right time to negotiate a comprehensive deal with Ankara. The European Union would be better waiting until after the elections — at which point it would be clear whether it would be dealing with Erdogan or a less authoritarian cross-party coalition. Either way, Europe will have to offer Turkey a better deal than it has to date. Hopefully it will do so in a way that respects the democratic values that are at the European Union’s core.

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