On 18 March 2016, the European Union (EU) struck a controversial deal with Turkey, aiming to stem the flow of refugees fleeing across the Aegean Sea. According to the deal, any refugee arriving on the shores of Greece can now be deported back to Turkey if their claim is rejected.
In order to determine the validity of refugee claims, border authorities will conduct a swift individual interview. If sent back, the EU will resettle one Syrian refugee from camps in Turkey. The idea is to trade so-called irregular migrants for Syrian refugees, whilst discouraging people from undertaking perilous sea crossings.
As the deal was being finalised, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish president, issued a statement: “Democracy, freedom and the rule of law, ” he said, “these words have absolutely no value any longer.” Amnesty International termed it “a historic blow to rights”. Nonetheless, the EU sealed the deal, offering to “re-energise” accession talks with Turkey, giving it billions of euros in aid, and promising visa-free travel to Turkish citizens by June this year.
Erdogan’s statements and the Turkish government’s cynical behaviour in the run-up to the deal indicates that it is not as eager to join Europe as it is to strip it off its moral authority.
Turkey is embroiled in a whirlwind of violence and controversies as it simultaneously battles Kurdish militants (PKK, TAK) and the so-called Islamic State (IS). It stands accused of cracking down on press freedom, brutally targeting dissidents, and suppressing workers’ rights and civil society organisations. enforcing blanket punishments on Kurdish civilians, and playing a disastrous proxy-war in Syria.
Under such circumstances, EU’s appeasement policy towards Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is a betrayal of its own values, and has far-reaching repercussions for the European project.
When the AKP first rose to power in 2002, it pushed for a series of promising reforms that generated fresh hope for Turkish democracy, inching it closer towards a European membership. As a result, the AKP’s popularity increased at home, and the EU came to provide an incentive for institutional change in Turkey.
Fast-forward to today, and the picture is startlingly different. Rather than a defanged institutional framework, the AKP has managed to repurpose the old order for its own designs.
Aykan Erdemir, a former member of Turkish Parliament now serving as a senior fellow at the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies, refers to the recent deal as a “charade” because “neither [Turkish President] Erdogan nor [Prime Minister Ahmet] Davutoglu has the slightest desire or hope of joining the EU.”
The deal is riddled with an obvious paradox: in order to transcend the EU-Turkey boundary, Turkey has to securitise its borders and inhibit the flow of migrants towards Europe. It makes no sense then for Europe to formally include Turkey into its official territory when Turkey is carrying all the migrants Europe wants to keep outside of its borders. Such a move would defeat the purpose of the deal.
Given the AKP’s Machiavellian reputation, one can expect Turkey to be well aware of the fact that accession is not on the cards right now. However, it has not shied away from using Syrian refugees as political currency in its negotiations with the EU.
On 4 March, two days prior to the first EU-Turkey summit, Turkey’s bestselling newspaper, Zaman, was raided by police, who then seized control of its operations and installed a new board of trustees – appointed by the courts and believed to be loyal to the AKP government.
The AKP’s onslaught against press freedom carries the traces of a cynical and carefully maneuvered ploy, indicative of the fact that Erdogan wishes to undermine the EU in order to legitimise his power at home.
Last November, Erdem Gul, the Cumhuriyet newspaper’s Ankara bureau chief, was detained for three months along with his editor-in-chief, Can Dundar, on charges of revealing state secrets and “aiding a terrorist organisation,” when the pair alleged in a report that Turkey was supplying arms to Islamists in Syria.
As noted by Erdemir, “Erdogan’s timing of his crackdown on the media is not coincidental.” By scheduling both crackdowns right before the EU-Turkey summits of November 2015 and March 2016, “he has forced the EU to follow an appeasement policy in the face of egregious breaches of rights and freedoms, further strengthening his image, power, and popularity at home.”
Inadvertently, the EU has overestimated its own negotiating capital and assisted Erdogan’s anti-Europe agenda by betraying not only its own values but also the trust and confidence of its pro-EU allies in Turkey.
The consequences of this deal are bound to go far and wide. According to Gul, the more power Erdogan manages to consolidate, the more difficult life becomes for those “who are in favour of freedom of thought and diversity.”
Under such an oppressive nationalist state apparatus, that is regularly used by the AKP to block the political integration of Turkish minorities such as the Kurds, there is no guarantee that Turkey will be a safe and free haven for Syrian refugees.
In recent months, the country has seen a surge in militancy that regularly targets civilians. The situation is bound to get worse if Turkey’s regional goals don’t change and its policy towards Kurdish civilians goes on unabated.
Given the fact that Turkey has not shown any intention of resolving its democratic-deficit and has consistently failed to provide security to its own civilians, the issue of refugee integration and security cannot be simply solved with European aid.
Moreover, the ‘iron-fist crackdown on terrorism’ promised by Erdogan has broader implications that bear the potential of making Turkey a bigger liability for Europe.
In recent months, Erdogan has been touting for a broader definition of “terrorist” in Turkish law. Critics, journalists and academics such as Noam Chomsky have been branded as terrorists or sympathisers of terrorists by the Turkish government. Spurious charges have been used to smear and intimidate rights activists.
A long-term continuation of such policies will render Turkey an undesirable destination for Syrian refugees, and add to the flow of Turkish and Kurdish refugees towards Europe.