President Erdoğan met with the President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen and President of the European Council Charles Michel in Brussels. Though it was assumed that the main topic of discussion would be more financial aid for the refugees, Erdoğan's actual target was to bring up several issues that had been left half-finished. At the very top of these were the possibility of visa-free travel to EU countries for Turkish citizens, the restart of EU accession talks, and full support for Turkey’s efforts in Syria.
Europe, on the other hand, wants Turkey to abide by the EU-Turkey Refugee Pact of 2016 and to close its borders. The EU may be flexible on certain issues, but it also has certain criteria for each and every issue it may be flexible about. European Commissioner for European Neighborhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations, Johannes Hahn, said in an interview that, “many schools, kindergartens and hospitals for refugees have already been built and do not have to be financed again. So, the need is slim.” He added that Ankara must end its "blackmailing policies" and threats to send more migrants to Europe before it can count on further aid.
Yet during a visit to Istanbul in January, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the EU would transfer two or three million euros more to Turkey. Turkey insists on receiving more money because it says it has spent nearly 36 billion euros since the beginning of the refugee crisis. This figure is of course much more than the 6 billion euros the EU has pledged to give to Turkey. For Turkey, what matters is not only the money received from the EU but how this money will transferred. At first, the EU, concerned that this financial aid would not be spent according to its terms, wanted to pay the money directly to institutions that coordinate projects for refugees. This was partially achieved, although an amount of 1 billion euros went to the Turkish Education and Health ministries.
For Europe, the refugee deal with Turkey has been hugely advantageous so far, as Turkey has blocked passage to Europe from its borders. However, Turkey, in order to exert pressure on Europe, had already relaxed the borders months before the current crisis. The “escapes” to Greek islands on the Aegean had already increased and, in September 2019, twice as many refugees stepped on European soil compared to the same month the previous year. It has been reported that the situation is tense in the Aegean Sea, and the Coast Guards of Turkey and Greece frequently have encounters. If Brussels wants President Erdoğan to close the borders, this time it may have to accept granting more financial aid to persuade him. Moreover, this time it may have to give the money directly to the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) government instead of funneling it through to specific institutions.
According to the refugee deal, refugees who enter the Greek islands illegally are to be returned to Turkey. But from this onset of the deal, this return process has been poorly enforced. From April 2016 to the end of January, only 2,000 refugees were returned, and the Greek islands have filled their capacity.
What is more, asylum procedures may take a few years. Greece has been given the role of being Europe's prevention shield, it is almost tasked with the assignment of holding the front line.
Greece, which does not have the slightest role in this war, has been left with this tough duty because Europe does not have a clear policy on how it can, or should, protect its borders. Instead of solely sticking to "protecting its borders," the EU has to make strides in its long-neglected project of reforming migrant and asylum laws, but for this it has to first convince countries such as Hungary and Poland.
Despite Merkel’s refugee policy that obliges Hungary and Poland to open their borders, Ursula von der Leyen, the newly elected President of the European Commission, has promised these countries that borders will definitely be kept closed. She would not have been elected had she not received the right populist party votes from these countries. This domestic dispute within Europe is the main reason why Erdoğan’s position is so strong.
Modernization of customs union
The 2016 refugee deal included the modernization of the Customs Union Agreement between Turkey and the EU deal, but it was never implemented. The Customs Union was thought of as a temporary solution for Turkey-EU trade until Turkey became a full member of the EU. Yet 25 year years later, Turkey's membership bid remains unaccomplished. An overhaul of the customs union could be extremely advantageous for Ankara economically, and it has been said that this issue might be used by Brussels as an incentive in negotiations with Turkey.
The lifting of the visa requirements for Turkish citizens in the Schengen region was accepted in the refugee pact, but only under certain conditions. Turkey has fulfilled the majority of these conditions, though there it features a controversial issue: the anti-terror Act. This law does not meet rule of law standards in the EU. Still, by finding an intermediate formula and opening discussion for the possibility of easing visa requirements rather than lifting them altogether, the EU may persuade Turkey to return to its previous border control policies.
Stability in Syria
The EU does not want a new migration wave from Syria as Syrians continue to flee Idlib. A stable Syria is good for the EU. Last Tuesday, Merkel made a call for the establishment of a new safe zone, though she underlined that this safe zone should not be in a region where Turkey's presence is questionable under international law, and should be under the supervision of international institutions such as the UN.
No matter what, Europe has to solve the humanitarian crisis at the border as soon as possible. Before holding their meeting with President Erdoğan in Brussels, Merkel, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, and Ursula von der Leyen demanded Turkey abide by the Refugee Pact. Moreover, Merkel said Turkey’s approach was unacceptable, “if it attempts to solve its own problems on the back of refugees.”
While Europe looks for ways to avoid clashing with Erdoğan, a decision has to be made on whether or not the migrant deal will be extended.