The game is on between the EU and Turkey

Ankara is more concerned with France’s involvement in Libya than either Greece or Cyprus at the moment. Is this a window of opportunity for a Turkey and Greece-Cyprus rapprochement? It might be, provided that the EU concedes to visa liberalization, the Customs Union, or both.

Germany has become the President of the European Union Council, and an intense 6-month period has started for the European Union and European affairs in general. For Ankara, this Presidency has been a long-awaited, pivotal time frame, and Germany at the helm of the EU may indeed prove to be a turning point.

The question is, though: turning towards what?

After Germany assumed the Presidency, the first pass to Turkey came from the leadership of the EU itself: High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell is now in Turkey for a two-day visit on July 6 and 7. 

Germany’s short playing field during its Presidency tenure has to be widened by the EU Commission itself: this is why the High Representative flew to Turkey in the first place. Borrell met with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu and other senior officials from the government in July, including Defense Minister Hulusi Akar, who just returned from a visit to Libya.

Borrell and Çavuşoğlu’s initial remarks at the press conference after their meeting were lukewarm: the Turkish Foreign Minister reaffirmed that Ankara wants a series of concessions from the EU prior to taking deescalating steps in the Eastern Mediterranean crisis towards Greece and Cyprus. In its tit for tat diplomacy, Ankara wants visa liberalization and an update of the Customs Union Agreement here and now. Then, as Çavuşoğlu indicated, Turkey will be ready to embark on negotiations with Cyprus.

Borrell was in Greece and Cyprus last week taking the initial steps to mediate between Ankara, Athens and Nicosia to resolve the tensions over the hydrocarbon reserves in the Eastern Mediterranean. Borrell aims to bring Greece, Turkey and Cyprus together.

Borrell omitted a visit to the Turkish Cypriot President Mustafa Akıncı during his visit to the island. Adding to the ambivalence, the EU diplomat later phoned Akıncı to express his regret. 

New Migrant Deal ahead?

As aforementioned, Borrell’s Turkey visit agenda is packed: the Eastern Mediterranean Crisis tops the list on the side of the EU, while on the other hand, Ankara wants the Turkey-EU migration deal to be renegotiated. 

Let’s focus on the latter: back when there was a Prime Minister post in Turkey and Ahmet Davutoğlu was still an AK Party heavyweight, he brokered the first “Migrant Deal” in 2016. The deal did almost halt the passage of irregular migrants from Turkey to the EU — but at what cost? As a consequence, many of the pillars of international refugee and asylum law have become defunct throughout Europe. 

While Europe lost on the human rights values front, Turkey secured six billion Euros to spend on the welfare of Syrian refugees. Up until April 2020, the Turkish government completed contracts through its ministries for the funding of projects catering to the needs of the Syrian refugees to the tune of around 4.7 billion Euros. Out of this amount, around 3.4 billion Euros have been released and passed onto the projects managed by United Nations agencies and international non-governmental organizations in partnership with local groups.

Some of these projects have turned out to be silent movers and shakers, such as the Emergency Social Safety Net (ESSN), which provides cash assistance to 1.7 million refugees in Turkey. This is the largest humanitarian aid program financed by the EU with 1.8 billion Euros donated. Other programs, like educational funding for Syrian refugee children, have benefited around 650,000 pupils through schemes such as the “Conditional Cash Transfers for Education” (CCTE). 

The new EU budget, or in other words, the medium- to long-term budget named the “Multiannual Financial Framework” (MFF), was much debated and discussed at the end of 2019, and it did not include financial aid to Turkey for refugees. 

As things stood until recently, the ESSN was due to expire around March 2021 and the CCTE by just October 2020. The European Peoples’ Party in the European Parliament jumped to the aid of Turkey upon the EU Commission’s proposal, and parliamentarians from the EU budget committee gave the green light for the continuation of support to refugees in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon. Taking the EU Commission’s proposal, Monika Hohlmeier from the EPP recommended the approval of the draft amending budget, and it was adopted on July 24. If the draft report is approved by the full house in an upcoming plenary session, 485 million Euros will be made available to Turkey for the continuation of the ESSN and CCTE.

As it may be discerned, the 485 million Euros in question is like a band-aid, salvaging only the ESSN and CCTE up to the end of 2021. But the MFF, or in other words, the new EU budget of 2021-27, will have to include much more than that. It will need to ensure the ESSN and CCTE for a longer term, and will need to add new comprehensive programs for Syrians and other refugees. 

Obviously, there are many further financial hurdles ahead if a new EU-Turkey migrant deal is to be undertaken. 

Ankara does not just complain about the inadequacy of available funds, but the whole procedure: according to Turkish officials, the EU is too bureaucratic, slow and reluctant to release funds. Moreover, they regard the expenses procured by international NGOs to be excessive, and would like to see less of their involvement or their replacement by local organizations. As for the EU, the presence of international organizations is essential to ensure efficiency and avoid corruption.  

Back in 2016 as well, for the first migrant deal, Turkey accepted becoming the de facto border guard of the EU in exchange for other concessions: visa-free travel to the Schengen area for Turkish citizens, modernization of the EU-Turkey customs union, reacceleration of Turkey’s EU accession talks, and the endorsement of EU-Turkish cooperation for a “safe-zone” in Syria were in the package, as well.

None of the above materialized, let alone the settlement of Syrian refugees from Turkey in EU countries. Only around 25,000 Syrians have been accepted to EU countries within the framework of the resettlement scheme that was agreed to in that deal. 

One of the reasons that the EU High Representative Borrell has kicked the ball to start the game between Germany, the EU and Turkey, among others, is the highly negatively-charged perceptions towards Ankara after the “almost” second migrant crisis in February 2020. On the night of February 27, Turkey lifted the sea and border controls in its land and maritime borders with Greece. Thousands of migrants headed towards the EU territory, but few were able to enter.

Ankara’s decision coincided with the killing of 34 members of the Turkish Armed Forces around Idlib, Syria’s last remaining active war zone — for the time being. 

Memories of the migrants queuing before the Greek-Turkish border back in February are still on the minds of many across the EU: Germany’s political sphere has reportedly been particularly berserk and still holds that negative perception of Ankara. Merkel will have a hard time selling any deal with Turkey to both her domestic audience and Germany’s political brass alike. Let’s remember that 2021 is also an election time in Germany, and Merkel will go into “pension.” The iconic Chancellor of Germany has affirmed numerous times that she will be retiring in 2021, leaving politics for good. 

Merkel’s hands are also quite tied because of France, as she has to have French President Emmanuel Macron’s backing in a number of critical issues during Germany’s EU Presidency. Relations between France and Turkey are at a low point of recent history due to the Libyan war. France is at odds with Turkey’s military involvement in Libya, having sided with the internationally recognized Government of National Accord in Tripoli against the offensive led by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army. 

During the press conference with Borrell, Çavuşoğlu singled out France, putting special emphasis on Paris in his criticisms. The Turkish Foreign Minister disparaged France for supplying arms to Haftar. Obviously, Ankara is more concerned with France’s involvement in Libya than either Greece or Cyprus at the moment. Is this a window of opportunity for a Turkey and Greece-Cyprus rapprochement? It might be, provided that the EU concedes to visa liberalization, the Customs Union, or both.

September 29, 2021 A post-Merkel Turkey