It is hard to believe that just over a year ago we were expecting a renaissance in the EU-Turkey relationship. The refugee agreement was freshly inked and German Chancellor Angela Merkel had just returned from a successful set of diplomatic meetings in Ankara where she emphasized the integral nature of Ankara-Brussels relations. Fast forward one year, and Turkey and many of its European partners seem to be one straw away from a breaking point in relations.
The most recent controversies are two-fold. Ahead of an April 16 Constitutional referendum in Turkey, multiple EU members have denied Turkish politicians permission to campaign to Turkish expats in their countries ahead of the vote. Approximately 4.6 million Turkish expatriates reside in Western Europe, the majority of which are concentrated in Germany. Of those 4.6 million, an estimated 3.05 million (1.4 million in Germany alone) are eligible to vote in the upcoming referendum. That equates to nearly 6.5 percent of the total voting population for the referendum. Given that polling has found the race is a near deadlock between the “yes” and “no” campaigns, it is easy to see why politicians have been distressed by being blocked from holding campaign rallies – most notoriously in Germany and the Netherlands. The political environment has given rise to a sharp escalation in harsh rhetoric between Turkey and its European partners, causing what may prove to be a lasting rift in relations.
On March 21, Turkey indicated that its relations with the EU will come under sharp scrutiny following the referendum. “We cannot continue this way,” Turkey’s president said during an event in Ankara. Spats over campaign rallies are only the most recent high-profile disagreements causing tension in EU-Turkey relations. The second area of continued frustration is the once heralded refugee agreement. Since the beginning of the Syrian civil war, Turkey has given shelter to some 3 million Syrian refugees. In the wake of the refugee agreement, European powers have expressed frustration with Turkey’s handling of domestic security consolidations and with a provision put forward by Ankara to reinstate capital punishment in the wake of the July 15, 2016 coup attempt. Turkey and the EU have also locked horns over Turkey’s terrorism laws, which the EU has asserted are not in line with the policies of the bloc, and which Turkey argues are essential to ensuring its national security.
Ankara’s frustrations mean the country has repeatedly found itself on the verge of breaking not only with the Refugee Deal, but also with the entire endeavor of EU candidacy. Turkey has hinted at the possibility of putting forward a referendum to Turkish citizens on the future of its status as a candidate country since November 2016. Ankara has been frustrated as the EU drags its heels on granting visa-free travel to Turkish citizens, the most important national benefit Turkey negotiated in response to agreeing to increase its share of the refugee burden. Furthermore, less that 25 percent of the promised €3 billion in aid has actually been disbursed as of January 2017. Only 3,500 refugees have been been resettled in European countries from Turkey under the 1:1 framework. Under this provision, irregular migrants crossing from Turkey to Greece will be returned to Turkey. In exchange for every Syrian returned to Turkey from Greece, one Syrian refugee in Turkey will be resettled to the EU.
With warming weather in spring and summer there has historically been an uptick in the number of attempted crossings from Turkey to Greece. The Greek Islands are already experiencing the increased number of arrivals with the changing season, a reality that again demonstrates the Europe’s reliance on the refugee agreement to combat this surge in numbers. As recently as March 20, the EU praised and underscored the importance of the refugee agreement, saying “the EU-Turkey statement was a game changer which allowed us to break the cruel business model of smugglers exploiting human misery and putting people’s lives in danger.” In fact, the refugee agreement might be the only tie left that binds the interests of Turkey and the EU. But the future of the agreement is anything but secure. Turkey has returned to signaling that the agreement may end up on the chopping block in the face of a continued deterioration in relations. “We may cancel the readmission agreement. The EU has been wasting our time on the visa liberalization issue. We are not applying the readmission agreement at the moment, and we are evaluating the refugee deal,” the Turkish Foreign Minister has warned.
In order to keep both the refugee agreement and broader EU-Turkey relations off the precipice several steps need to be taken. Ankara and Brussels (including the various EU member nations’ leadership) must continue to compartmentalize the refugee agreement away from other political issues. For Europe, abandoning the agreement would open up the continent to an influx of refugees that it cannot handle, as evidenced by the already abysmal conditions at Greek refugee camps. For Turkey, loss of the agreement would correspond with the loss of the promised €3 billion in aid and the loss of any hope for near term visa-free access to Europe for its citizens. However, in order to reinforce its support for Turkey’s refugee burden, the EU needs to make good on the disbursement of aid in a more effectual manner. As long as aid remains stalled in bureaucratic processes it neither benefits the future of the agreement, nor more importantly, the future of refugees.