Immediately after killing at least 36 soldiers and wounding dozens by what appears to be a joint Syria-Russian air offense, it would be logical for Turkey to seek the backing of Europe. To an extent, Ankara has done so at the military level by calling an emergency meeting of NATO. But simultaneously, another move came from Ankara that would completely derail the political relations with Europe: opening border gates on the Turkish side to refugees and asylum seekers, allowing them to pass into Greece and Bulgaria.
On March 3, the Europe Union’s top brass will be at the Greek border: Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis will be visiting the border region of Evros together with the leaders of the European Union’s top three institutions: the European Council President Charles Michel, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and European Parliament President David Sassoli.
The EU made sure to signal that it is a matter of the violation of borders and territorial sovereignty: The EU’s border protection agency Frontex said it was on "high alert" on Europe's borders with Turkey. “Support for Greek efforts to protect the European borders,” tweeted Charles Michel. Ursula von der Leyen echoed the line that this is a border protection issue by emphasizing that Frontex may be taking emergency measures.
This is our darkest hour with Europe and the European Union. And I do not think that either the public in Turkey or Turkish politicians in general are aware of the grimness of the situation. Turkey’s public psyche has gone berserk with all sorts of negative emotions, and are unable to recognize that relations with Europe are completely wrecked beyond repair. Even among the Turkish commentators frequenting Brussels there seems to be lack of understanding how this “policy” is going to damage Turkey. Most comfortably think that the issue of opening borders will just pass away, as the European Union will just remain passive. There are even some starting to join the official bandwagon that Turkey will start to win big time in Syria, toppling Assad because the Kremlin is stepping aside to let Ankara have its way. Many also think that startling Europe with the “refugee issue” gives leverage to Turkey. Most of the dissident commentators in Turkey are rightfully concerned with the impending humanitarian tragedy of the refugees, and they are so disillusioned with the European Union not living up to its standards that Europe's responses appears as just hypocrisy.
But the actual collapse of relations with Europe may lead to further, successive humanitarian tragedies in Turkey. If it was not for EU Parliamentarian and former Turkey Rapporteur Kati Piri’s tweet, it would not be publicly known that the new EU budget foresees that funding “for 500.000 Syrian schoolchildren ends 9/2020 and cash assistance to 1.7 mil Syrians in Turkey ends 3/2021.”
Turkey’s land trade routes with the European Union countries remain locked since Friday (February 28), as borders are completely shut on the Greek and Bulgarian sides. Turkey’s economy is already experiencing increasing strain, with EU countries are among Turkey’s biggest export clientele.
As far as the decision making circles of Ankara are concerned, there is a rationale for the very short term. All the public attention in Turkey is being diverted from the shock and agony of scores of Turkish soldiers being killed to the refugee issue. We did not see much about the stories of soldiers killed, nor have we heard many their names, save from on some social media accounts, apparently shared by relatives of the soldiers and unofficial accounts by military personnel. After the initial shock of the news broke, all social media was cut off for almost a day. By the time it came back, the debate had already shifted towards the topic of “Syrian refugees marching towards the border with Europe”.
In Turkey, as is done frequently by populist movements all around the world, foreign policy issues are instrumentalized to craft domestic political opinions. Nevertheless, this instance is major redirect of attention, diverting negative sentiments orienting the public psyche towards the scapegoats of Europe and Syrian refugees. Suddenly, no decision maker was culpable for the Syria policy, military decisions made, the loss of soldiers, gathering winds of war with Russia, ever-increasing economic problems, the crashing of Turkish Lira and burgeoning inflation. The already escalating hatred towards the Syrian refugees has been turned into a lightning rod, attracting all anxiety and anger related to the aforementioned real domestic political and economic issues. And the hatred towards Syrian refugees has been projected onto the “usual suspects” of Greece and the European Union.
The public psychology has been flooded by disdain against Greece, because they are not opening their side of the border--a result that was completely to be expected. What I never understood about the threats of “opening the borders for refugees to trespass,” made sporadically by Ankara to Europe, was always this: the borders are not one sided and on the other side there are the Bulgarian and Greek security forces. It is evident that in such as case, as it is happening now; the refugees will be either stuck in a “no man’s land” if coming by land, and will be turned back if coming by sea. Moreover, since 2016, NATO itself has been patrolling the Aegean Sea to ward off the human trafficking of refugees.
Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu himself jovially tweeted that as of 13.50 on March 2, 2020; 117.677 refugees had left Turkey, departing from Edirne. It is noteworthy that Soylu is a rising star among conservative voters, who frequently cite him as their most popular politician after President Erdoğan. The numbers shared by Soylu almost match the number of refugees (120 thousand) that arrived to Europe in all of 2019, according to International Migration Association’s figures. Greece is refuting these claims, sharing its own numbers: around a few hundred. Greece also has revoked Article 78.3 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union. So far, the emergency measure utilized by Greece is not accepting any asylum and refugee applications for one month: whether could it extend the total, indefinite closure of the borders is unknown.
Curiously enough, Bulgaria received less of the heat compared to Greece. It was as if there was no border shared with Bulgaria that refugees could pass through, and Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov was hosted by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on March 2 in Ankara. This is an indication that casting Greece as the enemy is a useful policy tool indeed. But at what cost, and who will pay the price?