“The Turkey-EU Migrant Deal is Dead, Long Live the Turkey-EU Migrant Deal”: that seems to be the motto of the day as President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan visited Brussels on March 9. Ankara and the EU Commission hardly see eye to eye in on any issue, let alone the migrant deal. But for both sides, the stakes are high. They have to find a common ground.
The new EU Commission set itself the target being a “geopolitical commission”, but that is indeed becoming a self-fulfilling wish--albeit a damning one. Due to COVID 19, a quarter of Italy’s population is under quarantine, and Europe itself may be plunged into further “Corona virus crisis”. Austria has introduced “spot health checks” at its border with Italy, with the border situation becoming more complex as more and more checks are introduced.
Certainly the new EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen did not envision herself surveying the Turkey-Greece border cramped in a helicopter with three men when she stated that she would like her commission to be “geopolitical”. But that turned out to be the case when the Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis briefed von der Leyen, EU Council President Charles Michel and EU Parliament President Davide Sassoli as they toured over the new refugee crisis zone on March 3. The EU's top leadership's references to “defending the European borders” echoed populist right wing movements’ rhetoric building up over all these years. More so than the “refugees invading Europe”, a once fringe populist rhetoric has invaded the mainstream.
Just as von der Leyen, Michel and Sassoli tried to conduct crisis management on “defending the EU border”, the EU Foreign Affairs High Representative/Vice-President Josep Borrell and Commissioner for Crisis Management Janez Lenarčič traveled to Ankara. Apparently, they talked “business”, placing an offer of 500 million to 1 billion Euros of aid for ameliorating the conditions of refugees. Ankara is demanding more than money, however. Visa free travel of Turkish citizens to Schengen countries, which was long promised within the framework of the first EU-Turkey immigration deal, was another target pursued by the Turkish side. But the crown jewel sought was the promise of a safe zone in Syria, where up to 1 million refugees could be “sent back”.
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan may like bashing Europe before the Turkish public, but carving out a lucrative deal in Brussels would strengthen his hand at a time when an economic crisis is starting to sink its teeth in deeper back home. Moreover, the first deal was brokered by Ahmet Davutoğlu, when he was the premier back in March 2016. Four years later, Davutoğlu stands as a rival to Erdoğan with his newly founded Gelecek Partisi (Future Party). It is expected that another once close Erdoğan ally (and, maybe even more importantly, a once key person in charge of the economy inTurkey’s boom times), Ali Babacan is also finally founding his new party. While both Davutoğlu and Babacan hover around single digit support in current polls, the ruling AK Party itself is cruising at a low altitude around 32-33 percent support. Only when the undecided are distributed equally among all parties does the AK Party see 40 percent plus electoral support. Furthermore, it can climb to around 50 percent support or more only with the backing of Nationalist Action Party (MHP).
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Turkey's close ally within EU, Hungary’s PM Viktor Orbán, find themselves as strange bedfellows in facing this new refugee crisis with Turkey. Back in 2015, while Merkel advocated open borders, Orbán preached about the “end of European civilization if EU borders are not defended”. It is clear whose argument won five years later. Now both parties seek to convince Brussels that Turkey must receive a generous package for keeping refugees within its borders. However, French President Emmanuel Macron does not like the idea at all, and neither does Austria and the Netherlands.
The EU Commission had vocally dissenting members, as well. The EU Budget’s chief, Commissioner Johannes Hahn referred to Ankara’s policies as “bullying” and implied that first Turkey must pull back refugees from the EU borders. Afterwards money might flow, Hahn insinuated, but only through strictly controlled organizational schemes ensuring that every cent is really spent for the benefit of refugees. The new EU budget for 2021-2027 already bypassed any extra aid to Turkey in addition to 6 billion Euros allocated by the first EU-Turkey Migrant Deal. Hahn framed it as most of what could be done, such as building educational and health facilities, with the rest being up to Turkey.
Alternatively, Ankara was pointing out that Turkey had already spent over 35 billion Euros, claiming that the EU was trying “wash its hands (of the issue) once the 6 billion Euro aid is spent” (in the words of Deputy Foreign Minister Faruk Kaymakçı). As mentioned, money is an important part of the issue for Ankara; but so is its safe zone plan. Back in October 2019, the AK Party government and President Erdoğan’s popularity received a major boost with the launching of the “Peace Spring” Military Operation. The polls indicated that the public supported the military incursion into Northern Syria first and foremost because they believed that a safe zone for Syrian refugees to return may be created. As Turkey’s public opinion sours vehemently on the refugee issue, the “promise of sending back the Syrian refugees” is political gold in terms of returns in political capital. Merkel and Orbán’s support for Ankara also included support for the “safe zone”. But could the EU deliver that promise even if Brussels decided to go for it?