Turkey and EU are back in business but stumbling blocks remain
ISTANBUL - Turkey and the European Union have resolved to inject new life into their relationship but that might not be enough to put their ties on a new level.
The European Union needs Turkey’s help to limit refugee numbers, while Turkey is keen to extract long-sought political concessions from Brussels. But the convergence of interests, which opened the way to a deal covering Europe’s refugee crisis and Turkey’s EU accession process, is unlikely to unblock unsolved problems that have bedevilled relations between the two sides in recent years.
During a summit in Brussels on November 29th, leaders from Turkey and the European Union reached a framework agreement that said Turkey would do more to stem the flow of Syrian refugees over its territory towards Europe in return for an initial $3.2 billion in EU aid, regular high-level meetings, a possible removal of visa requirements for Turks travelling to Europe and new talks about Ankara’s EU membership.
Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu spoke of a “historic day”, while European Council President Donald Tusk stressed that the “agreement sets out a clear plan for the timely reestablishment of order at our shared frontier”. Most Turkish newspapers welcomed the deal, with several dailies highlighting the promise of eased travel restrictions. “Visa-free Europe in ten months,” the headline of the Vatan newspaper said.
Critics in Europe and Turkey say the European Union has chosen to ignore autocratic tendencies in Ankara, where the government has tightened its grip on the media. Only days before the summit, journalists Can Dundar and Erdem Gul were put into pretrial detention for allegedly publishing state secrets in articles about suspected arms deliveries by Turkey to Syrian rebels.
Turkey, which started EU accession talks in 2005 but has failed to make much progress since, can expect a so-called chapter of negotiations with the European Union to be opened in December for the first time in two years.
But critics said the deal reached in Brussels is unlikely to ease the refugee situation and accelerate Turkey’s accession process. “Unless this deal is substantially improved in the coming days and weeks, it simply sets the stage for failure,” the European Stability Initiative (ESI) think-tank said. “The influx of refugees coming into the EU from Turkey will not abate. Both sides will then blame each other.”
ESI argued that an agreement by Turkey to take back refugees not in need of international protection from Europe covers only 5% of the hundreds of thousands of Syrians who have travelled to Europe in 2015. The Brussels deal does not include a clear commitment by Turkey to grant work permits to Syrian refugees, seen as a potential key measure because the lack of opportunities to make a living is driving many Syrians to leave Turkey.
Other problems that could unravel the Brussels accord loom as well, said Ebru Turhan.
There was no guarantee of visa-free travel for Turks in Europe in 2016, as the EU Commission would have to present the matter to the European Parliament for approval, she said.
Turhan, an assistant professor at the Turkish-German University in Istanbul and a research fellow at the Istanbul Policy Centre of the Sabanci University, said preparations for elections in France and Germany in 2017 could sap the willingness of EU lawmakers to grant new travel privileges to Turks. “It will be a challenge,” she said.
Nazmi Gur, a leading member of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party, the second biggest opposition group in Turkey’s parliament, said it was wrong of the European Union to believe it could solve the refugee crisis by giving money to Turkey. “Refugees have no real legal status, no legal protection in Turkey,” Gur said.
He added only a radical change of Turkey’s Syria policy, which seeks the overthrow of President Bashar Assad and supports rebel factions in Syria, in favour of a more conciliatory course aiming for a ceasefire and “normalisation” in Syria could bring a solution to the refugee issue.
Hopes by Turkey for a quicker EU accession process could also prove to be ill-founded, observers said. They pointed out that the Brussels agreement did not mean that scepticism against Turkey’s EU bid had waned among members. Problems such as the unsolved Cyprus conflict continue to block many negotiation chapters as well. Marc Pierini, a former EU ambassador to Turkey, wrote on Twitter that the summit agreement was “very light on accession”. Belgium Prime Minister Charles Michel said Turkey was still “far away from membership”.
There is also the question of how far Turkey will allow itself to be pressured by the European Union to make changes in its laws restricting press freedom and other rights and whether the European Union was willing to apply pressure at all in a situation where it needs Turkey’s cooperation on the refugee issue.
Pierini said the European Union ignored the thorny questions of human rights and freedom of expression in the Brussels agreement. “Not a word on rule of law, media, Kurdish issue,” he wrote. “EU realpolitik at its worst.”
Turkish government critics agree. “I am utterly concerned that the EU now sends all the wrong signals to Ankara, a willingness to trade, to bargain in the worst sort of realpolitik sense, ‘bringing down to refugee flow’ with a swap of our freedom and rights,” Turkish journalist Yavuz Baydar said during a recent conference in Brussels.
Davutoglu told Turkish reporters accompanying him to Brussels he supported the charges against Dundar and Gul because state secrets had been at stake. Davutoglu said he did not agree with the court decision to put the journalists into pretrial detention, instead of setting them free pending trial. But he added his government would not act to change the situation.