Nathalie Tocci is director of Istituto Affari Internazionali, a former special adviser to former European High Representative for Foreign Affairs Federica Mogherini, and the author of POLITICO‘s World View column.
The crisis at the Greek-Turkish border should spark a moment of reckoning in Brussels. Rather than “shield” itself from Turkey’s refugees, Europe needs to reset its relationship with the country.
In recent years, EU-Turkey relations have been transactional — with the EU essentially paying Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to prevent Syrian refugees from crossing over into the bloc’s territory.
That has turned what was once a budding partnership into a zero-sum relationship. By centering its relationship with Turkey around a mercenary exchange, Brussels has in effect encouraged Erdoğan to hold the EU hostage — playing off its citizens fears of another migration crisis.
This can’t last. Instead of making itself vulnerable to blackmail, the EU needs to work with Ankara to rebuild a relationship in which both sides are encouraged to work for each other’s mutual benefit.
The Turkish president is in trouble over his intervention in Syria, where Turkey has incurred high losses as of late.
The obstacle to doing this has been the perception in the EU that any move that is beneficial to Turkey doubles as a reward for the increasingly antagonistic Turkish president.
It’s time for Brussels to look past Erdoğan and craft a rules-based approach to Turkey designed to promote a long-term rapprochement between the EU and one of its most important neighbors.
This would give the EU the opportunity to regain some of its long-lost influence in Turkey and to drive a wedge between Ankara and Moscow.
Erdoğan decision to finally act on his long-time threat to encourage the 4 million refugees in his country to cross into Europe is very much a sign of weakness.
The Turkish president is in trouble over his intervention in Syria, where Turkey has incurred high losses as of late, with 36 soldiers killed in a single attack by the Syrian government and its Russian backers in the battle over Idlib.
The Turkish people are baffled, oscillating between their wounded national pride and mounting doubts about their army’s presence — without air cover — in Idlib.
It was one thing last fall to intervene militarily in Northeast Syria, where most Turks, rightly or wrongly, are easily galvanized against the perceived Kurdish threat. It’s quite another to justify, even to a nationalist public, such a heavy toll in Turkish lives in Idlib, which lies in the northwest of the country.
The military losses have come at a time when Erdoğan’s popularity is sagging, as evident in his Justice and Development Party’s loss of all major urban centers in last year’s local elections, including in Istanbul.
Erdoğan knows that, aside from the Kurds, there is one other issue on which a nationalist Turkish public can be mobilized these days: refugees.
Gone are the days of Turkey’s open arms policy toward migrants and refugees. With close to 4 million refugees present on Turkish territory, and a far from stellar economic performance, attitudes toward migration in the country have become sadly Europeanized.
Faced with the threat of a further inflow of 900,000 refugees from Idlib, Erdoğan sought to distract public attention from the losses on the battlefield. He did so by picking on his favorite punching bag: the EU.
If Erdoğan is hoping to extract something from Europe, however, it’s not clear what that would be. With the United States governed by an isolationist president irked by Turkey’s acquisition of Russian S400 missiles, Ankara could desperately use another partner to come to its rescue in Idlib.
There are areas — beyond Syria — where the EU could do more.
But if the U.S. is unlikely to Turkey’s rescue, it is even less likely that Europeans will do so.
Erdoğan must know that no matter how much Europeans are terrified of a new inflow of refugees, they are even more scared of getting caught up in the Syrian quagmire. As EU High Representative Josep Borrell put it, a European enforced no-fly zone in Syria is nothing more than wishful thinking.
But there are areas — beyond Syria — where the EU could do more.
In picking a fight with Europe, Erdoğan has been able to tell a story of double standards and unkept promises that, unfortunately, is largely true.
Much like Erdoğan has inhumanely treated the refugees as a pawn in his tit-for-tat with Brussels, EU leaders have inhumanly treated these people as a dangerous threat from which they must shield themselves.
That “shield” is taking the form of a bolstered Frontex presence and a €700 million package to Greece, whose police forces have used tear gas on refugees and participated in violent clashes. Human beings have simply disappeared from the equation, and international humanitarian law has been binned.
If the relationship with Turkey is to be reset, the EU has to acknowledge that Turkey has as point when it claims to be on the losing side of the equation when it comes to 2016 migration pact.
Of the €6 billion pledged by the EU, only €4.7 has been signed in contracts so far, while no funds as yet are foreseen under the next long-term EU budget, the Multiannual Financial Framework.
In any case, money alone cannot buy a sustainable solution to the refugee question in Turkey — not without a fairer sharing of responsibility both within the EU and between the EU and transit states like Turkey.
The truth is that the migration deal was never implemented as originally foreseen. It was meant to be a package that included EU visa liberalization, the modernization of the EU-Turkey customs union, the opening of new accession chapters and, crucially, a 1:1 resettlement scheme.
There are plenty of reasons why the EU has not delivered on visa liberalization or accession negotiations. Some are valid, including Turkey’s lack or reversal of democratic reforms, for example. But there is absolutely no good reason why, in four years, only 25,000 refugees have been legally resettled in a bloc of 450 million people.
The only way forward is clear: Brussels should work to establish a relationship centered on the construction of a modernized customs union that also foresees a new migration package in which both aid and resettlement lie at the core.
Transactionalism rarely stands the test of time. After Erdogan’s visit to Brussels Monday this much should be clear. Rather than resorting to panic and hiding behind the walls of fortress Europe, now is the moment to rethink our relationship with Turkey in a way that is true to the values of the European project.