Causes and Consequences of the Uncertain Relationship between the EU and Turkey

, by GFE Bologna, translated by Brittany Ingham-Barrow, translated by Felicity Hemming

All the versions of this article: [English] [italiano]

Causes and Consequences of the Uncertain Relationship between the EU and Turkey
Image: EU Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid, Flickr

What exactly is happening at the gates of the European Union in light of the interests that are driving the decisions of President Erdoğan and European leaders? The Young European Federalists (Bologna) discussed with Mariano Giustino, Turkish correspondent for Radio Radicale, in this article originally published in our Italian sister publication Eurobull.

The border between Greece and Turkey is a crucial border for the European Union, not only in strategic-political terms, but also in terms of identity and values. The brutal and symbolic nature of this border was revealed by the migration crisis of 2015, triggered by four years of war in Syria. However, today, five years after the crisis and shortly after the outbreak of another linked to the same location and to the same geopolitical dynamics, it is once again necessary to reflect on the significance of the border. This reflection aims to be – and should be – in depth, in order to explain the complexity of those borders, and the land and sea that surround them. In fact, this crucial geographical location is where, in 2015, the European Union’s migration policies were defined, the implications of which will be laid bare once again.

Migration crisis on the Turkish-Greek border

The spark that triggered this latest migration crisis occurred on Thursday 27 February, when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced that he wanted to open borders with the European Union to over 4 million migrants residing in Turkey, over 3.6 million of which are Syrians according to UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees).

Erdoğan’s decision came directly after an incident that had occurred the day before in Idlib, Syria, where a battle that had been going on for months saw Turkey and Syrian rebels up against the Assad regime which, supported by Russia, aimed to regain control over the area. As reported by the Norwegian Refugee Council, from 1 December 2019 to the end of February 2020, the humanitarian crisis in Idlib has forced over 900,000 people to leave the city under siege, creating the largest displacement in the history of the Syrian conflict, which has itself been going on for 9 years.

It was against this backdrop that, as Al Jazeera reported on 26 February, 33 Turkish soldiers were killed in an attack launched by Syrian forces under Assad. Erdoğan’s reaction was immediate and two-fold: as well as responding harshly through military attacks in the Idlib area, the Turkish President announced the unblocking of the borders to the EU to draw international attention to the situation in northern Syria and to highlight the siege which forced a million refugees to leave their homes and head towards the Turkish border.

As a result of Erdoğan’s announcement, a large number of displaced families in Turkey have decided to attempt to cross the border into Europe since Thursday 27 February. Just over a week later, it was estimated that tens of thousands of people had already gathered on the land and sea borders between Turkey and Greece.

Roots of the crisis: background

Let’s take a step back. In order to understand this story in depth, it is useful to briefly retrace the evolution of Turkish-European relations to date. Our sister publication Eurobull was able to do this primarily thanks to the help of Mariano Giustino, who was asked to outline the evolution of ideas and positions within Turkey regarding the European Union, particularly in light of the latest political developments. In the second part, the analysis continues with a focus on the EU-Turkey Declaration of 2016, which is crucial for a thorough understanding of the crisis.

Turkish-European relations: where are we currently?

The first major step towards building relations between the Republic of Turkey and the European Community was mutual recognition as key economic partners, ratified by the Ankara Agreement in 1963. It was then in 1999 that an important new phase in relations began, with the decision of the Helsinki European Council to upgrade Turkey’s status to that of Candidate Country. According to Mariano Giustino, correspondent for Radio Radicale in Turkey and expert on the subject, “a large part of Turkish society - the young part in particular - has always seen the European Union as a focal point in terms of universal values and rights”. However, he maintains that “Turkish citizens’ perceptions of Europe have broadly gone hand in hand with the development of the agenda of Erdoğan’s party (the AKP), which came to power after winning the elections in 2002”.

Giustino claims that until 3 October 2005, when accession negotiations were opened up, “enthusiasm in Turkey was high, with more than 70% of citizens in favour of joining the European Union”. He recalls that “when the European Parliament voted to follow up the opening of accession negotiations,”yes“signs were raised in the chamber in every language, including Turkish”. Giustino highlights that in the period from 2000 to 2004, described by the Turkish press as ’The Revolution for the European Union’, two constitutional revisions and eight ’Reform Packages’ to adjust legislation to the acquis were approved by Ankara, including: a new Civil Code, a new Penal Code, the abolition of the death penalty and other laws adapting the Turkish legal and constitutional system to the European system.

However, the progress made by Turkey was not enough to prevent the blocking of 17 negotiating chapters, after vetoes imposed by Cyprus and France (under Sarkozy), and supported by Germany. According to Giustino “this obstruction confirmed the ambiguity of Europe’s attitude towards Turkey which has always been considered a bulwark rather than as a political partner for dialogue without prejudice. In the past, Turkey has been considered a defence against Soviet threat and it currently provides a physical barrier to the consequences of Middle Eastern tragedies, namely, to the migration of refugees. The obstruction to Turkish-European relations developed strong feelings of disappointment and mistrust, not only within Turkish government, but also among public opinion.”

Despite the European closure, Erdoğan continued to implement reforms in line with the direction of previous years. As Giustino points out, Erdoğan’s pro-European agenda of the AKP (the Justice and Development Party) has its origins in the fact that “when he founded his party, the Turkish president was convinced that the pro-European agenda was a necessary step to prevent the party from having the same fate as the previous Islamist-rooted inspired parties, who were broken up by the constitutional court and military regimes. Abandoning the anti-Western agenda thus meant opening up to the European Union”.

Since its founding in 2001, the AKP has therefore embraced the Europeanism that was already well rooted in civil society. Without wanting to delve into the real intentions of the Turkish leader since the party’s foundation and the early years of its political escalation, Giustino points out that “the AKP was made up of people who really believed in the European project”. He affirms that “the Union’s mistake was to close the door, thus stopping the Ankara reform process, which led to a strong authoritarian regression and the repression of every critical opinion and voice of opposition in the country”.

Mariano Giustino describes how perceptions of Europe have changed in Turkey, as well as how stances on the AKP, in power since 2002, and the largest opposition party have evolved:

“It is worth mentioning that the largest opposition party to the AKP is the Republican People’s Party (CHP), created by Atatürk, the father of the homeland who, inspired by the Western world, founded modern Turkey. After his death, the party, which holds populism and nationalism among its main principles, ended up developing strong feelings of diffidence towards the EU. But since 2010, with new direction under the presidency of Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, a positive perception towards the EU has started to grow within the party. The secular-nationalist wing of the CHP (called ’ulusalcılar’, i.e. ’the nationalists’) had always been sceptical of the EU, particularly with regard to the Union’s demands to implement fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of expression, especially if that meant criticising Atatürk and giving more rights to minorities (the Kurdish community in particular). It should be noted that the CHP was, at least until the events in Gezi Park, an anti-Kurdish party. Regarding civil rights, freedom of expression, gender rights and minorities, it was no different from any right-wing Turkish nationalist party. It was precisely with Kılıçdaroğlu’s secretariat that this party became less and less nationalist, moving closer to social democracy and becoming more sensitive towards minority and civil rights.”

It can therefore be said that there has been a slow and progressive reorientation of the CHP’s political vision. With Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, a new inclusive and democratic phase is beginning. This stage, although not yet complete, shows greater openness to the demands of freedom, revealing a new generation of leaders on the political scene with values and inclusive rhetoric, who are open to the needs of Turkey’s complex and diverse society. The mayor of Istanbul, Ekrem İmamoğlu, is the most authoritative exponent of this new direction.

Going back to the early 2000s, the CPH considered the EU’s demands to avoid military interference in politics, find a non-violent solution to the Kurdish problem, and improve the rights of non-Muslim minorities, as demands that would weaken Turkey’s secular political unity and jeopardize the legacy of Kemalism. Due to the CHP’s intransigence, the AKP reforms, aimed at achieving European standards, made Erdoğan a growing star in Europe. He was recognised for helping to further discredit the CHP that was entrenched in an anachronistic political vision and prevented Turkey from making the qualitative leap, in terms of democracy and the rule of law, necessary for EU membership.

Many Europeans now believe that Turkish citizens are distancing themselves from the EU. Despite the duration and severity of the crisis between Turkey and Europe, according to recent surveys carried out by the prestigious Kadir Has University in Istanbul, support for EU membership still remains firmly above 55% reaching over 60% in some regions. According to the survey conducted by the Centre for Economic and Foreign Policy Studies (EDAM), this is due to the fact that the Turkish citizens who now support the EU are no longer those who supported it during the period of the AKP’s pro-European agenda.

In the 2000s, support for membership among AKP voters was very high, reflecting Erdoğan’s strongly pro-European rhetoric. At the same time, the percentage of support for membership among CHP voters was much lower, reflecting the political rhetoric of the party. As relations between the EU and Turkey became stronger, some CHP members showed growing resentment towards the Union, claiming that Europe would end up supporting the alleged “AKP secret agenda” that included the erosion of Turkey’s secular system. Essentially, the CHP argued that Erdoğan’s pro-European policy was like a Trojan horse that served to diminish military power, providing him free rein to implement his Islamist-rooted agenda.

The situation has now changed and turned completely upside down. Support in favour of EU membership is now equal to about 30% both within AKP’s electorate and among voters of the National Movement Party (MHP) which is known to be the most anti-European party in Turkey due to its ultra-nationalist stance. On the other hand, support for EU membership amongst CHP voters is now over 70% and could increase further, as CHP voters now see the EU as a partner in the protection of democracy, human rights and the rule of law in Turkey. This is surprising because, according to every survey conducted over the last decade on Turkey-EU relations, motivation for EU membership has been predominantly economic in nature, but now it seems that, for most of those in favour of accession, the value of democracy, rule of law, and human rights is no longer secondary to economic motivation.

A turning point in Euro-Turkish relations took place in 2015. Four years of war in Syria sparked a shocking migration and humanitarian crisis. It is precisely at this juncture that Turkey and the EU found themselves in the best possible circumstances to converse and produce an agreement that, paradoxically, distanced them considerably from each other: incapable of creating a reception policy, Europe needed to stop the flow of people and, to achieve this, needed Turkey outside its borders. In this context, the two sides arrived at the EU-Turkey Statement on Refugees in March 2016.

Although it is not subject to scrutiny by the European Parliament and does not bear the status of a ’treaty’ - it exists only in the form of a press release - this agreement represents a milestone in European migration policy and has characterised the policy in an original and substantial way. Drawn up in response to the humanitarian catastrophe that characterised the migration crisis of 2015, the Statement involved an exchange focused on the management and blocking of migrants by Turkey, whereby the EU pledged its financial support which provided political benefits. As the text of the agreement states:

The European Union has started distributing 3 billion euros as part of the ‘Facility for Refugees in Turkey’ program which aims to create concrete projects and has continued work on visa liberalisation and accession talks [...]. In addition, on 7 March 2016, Turkey agreed to accept the rapid return of all migrants who had made the crossing from Turkey to Greece and were not in need of international protection. It also agreed to welcome back all irregular migrants intercepted in Turkish waters.

From the outset, the agreement provoked negative reactions from scholars, civil society and international organisations. During the pact’s first anniversary, Amnesty International’s Director for Europe, John Dalhuisen, called the pact a “blatant failure” which violated international law in several places and thus represented a “stain on the collective consciousness of Europe”. Although Amnesty’s position has been, and continues to be shared, supported and developed in many opinions expressed in reports and studies (Alpes et al.; Roman et al.; Beirens and Clewett; Benvenuti and Toygür; Danisi; and others) the European Council and the European Commission, on the other hand, have repeatedly shown their approval of the agreement’s implementation.

In fact, it has succeeded from the outset in reducing the influx of migrants to Europe. The agreement has also allowed a number of migrants to be brought back to Turkey by recognising it as ‘first country of asylum’ or ‘safe third-country’. These terms are the subject of Articles 35 and 38 of the European Directive on common procedures for granting and withdrawing international protection status, and enable the rejection of asylum applications in Greece. All criticism raised in fact relates to the accusation that the EU has violated the Principle of non-refoulement, a fundamental pillar of international law.

Even reconsidering Erdoğan’s announcement in the light of this information, his logic is no easier to understand: to some extent, in fact, it can be said that the agreement of 2016 has given Turkey a crucial role in the management of migration flows to Europe and, consequently, a far from indifferent socio-political leverage on the matter. As Jennifer Rankin has highlighted in The Guardian, now that the Turkish President has claimed to have opened the gates to Europe, the EU’s failure to agree a common migration policy over the last four years has been exposed. However, it should be noted that Mr Erdoğan has far less negotiating power in reality vis-à-vis the EU compared to how he would like to appear and how he is generally conveyed in European media.

Mariano Giustino confirms this view, noting that the authority and leadership of the Turkish President is weaker than what is usually suggested both within his own country and in Europe. The journalist notes, for example, that since the Gezi Park protests took place, “to achieve electoral success Erdoğan has had to resort to reactionary politics and acts that do not meet the criteria of transparency and fairness of political competition”. Moreover, on the refugee issue, Erdoğan “does not have the key to flood Europe with millions of refugees. Most of the 3.6 million Syrian refugees are integrated, with children going to school and university. At the Greek border there are illegal immigrants from Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and Africa who are destined to be sent back to their countries”.

Greece and the EU’s response to the crisis

Faced with the crisis that erupted after Erdoğan’s announcement, Greece and the entire EU behind it have responded in a clear and unequivocal way: the European borders remained sealed and the Greek armed forces immediately began to push migrants back to the other side of the Evros River. This river spans almost the entire 120 km of the land border separating Greece from Turkey and has borne witness to the most tragic events of this crisis. According to Foreign Policy, at least 32,000 migrants were actually arrested at the Greek land border. The gravity of the situation is decidedly unheard of, due to Greece’s decision, announced by Prime Minister Mitsotakis after the National Security Council talks on Sunday 1 March, to suspend the registration of asylum applications for those entering the country irregularly and to immediately deport recent arrivals before registration.

This may constitute a serious violation of various European and international standards on the right to asylum, such as Article 18 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union and the 1951 Refugee Convention. This crisis is therefore a useful lens through which to analyse the triangle that interconnects the European, Turkish and Syrian contexts. On this occasion, the European Union for its part has only reiterated the strategy upon which, through the new Von Der Leyen Commission, it will base its migration agenda. The externalisation of the migration issue, in other words, the basis for which the management of migrants is entrusted to third countries, remains the founding pillar of European migration policies.

Therefore, the risk of prioritising security concerns over humanitarian and progressive objectives is reinforced (according to some sources). According to this paradigm, more weight is given to the issue of internal security, guaranteeing the fundamental rights of asylum seekers. Moreover, as Giustino points out, although Erdoğan has managed to some extent to put European governments back on alert regarding the refugee issue, the EU will not support Turkey’s request to take a united stand in the Syrian conflict.

Nor is it presumed that the terms of the 2016 Statement will be renegotiated in more favourable terms for Turkey (negotiations meanwhile started with Erdoğan’s visit to Brussels in early March: the official press release of the European Council). Finally, the crisis once again brutally highlights Europe’s inability to be truly united and solidary in designing and implementing a common asylum policy.

Furthermore, it is essential that the crisis spotlights the Syrian situation and the responsibilities that the international community as a whole must acknowledge in relation to the crisis, of which the ongoing Idlib tragedy is just another act of shame.

This article was previously published on Il Bradipo Federalista, GFE’s departmental blog in Bologna and was originally written by Virginia Sarotto, with the collaboration of Ignazio Pardo and Federico Tosi.

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