Jonathan Raa / AP

Turkey compromise signals EU 'desperation' over refugees

EU has agreed to restart membership talks with Turkey, despite Ankara's democratic backsliding

The European Union's landmark deal with Turkey to bolster Turkish border security may provide the hands-off solution Europe wants to curb the flow of refugees onto its shores. But it could come at a price for Turkish democracy: The EU has agreed to set aside its reservations about Ankara's creeping authoritarianism and renew discussions about incorporating Turkey into the regional bloc.

Under the deal struck in Brussels on Sunday, Turkey will tighten its borders with Bulgaria and Greece and step up its naval patrols in surrounding waters, thereby clamping down on major passageways into Europe that hundreds of thousands of asylum-seekers have traveled in the past year. In exchange, the EU will provide $3.2 billion in additional aid for the more than 2 million Syrian refugees in Turkey, ostensibly to improve their living conditions and lessen their motivation to attempt the treacherous journey to Western Europe.

But there is a bigger prize for Turkey’s leadership: As part of the deal, the EU has agreed to “re-energize” talks on Turkey joining Europe’s Schengen Area, which would allow Turkish citizens to travel across Europe without visas and could be seen as a precursor to EU membership. Analysts say the ruling AK party in Ankara sensed Europe’s desperation to stop the flow of refugees and bargained hard for these conditions, which will be a major domestic boost for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan — the former prime minister who still pulls the strings in Ankara — at a moment when many Turks want their country to lean Westward and away from its destabilizing involvement in the Middle East.

Donald Tusk, President of the EU’s European Council, insisted before the summit in Brussels that “our main goal is to stem the flow of migrants,” adding that “this is not a simple, trivial trade-off.” But Prime Minister Ahmet Davotoglu was downright joyous, telling reporters in Brussels: “Today is a historic day in our accession process to the EU.” He called it a "new beginning.”

The deal “shows how desperate the European Union has become,” as it is unable to stem the flow of migrants by other means, said Gonul Tol, founding director of the Center for Turkish Studies at the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C. The concession is siginficant, Tol said. Whereas the United States, which like Europe considers NATO ally Turkey a close military and political partner in the region, has been more willing to “turn a blind eye to the authoritarian tendencies of Erdogan, the EU has always been more vocal." Until now, Tol said, "the EU agenda on Turkey was Turkey’s democratization.”

To be sure, the prospect of Turkey actually joining the EU as a full member remains remote, at least for the foreseeable future. There are a number of obstacles, including Turkey’s human rights record and territorial dispute with Cyprus. A more likely prospect appears to be that Turkish citizens could gain visa-free status in Europe, which under Sunday’s deal would happen within a year if Ankara makes good on its commitment to heightened border security.

Many in Turkey will likely be conflicted over that prospect. Though Turkish support for joining the EU has ebbed and flowed, analysts say domestic opinion at the moment leans decidedly in its favor, largely due to concerns about Turkey becoming even further entangled in the Middle East. Groups such as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) — which Ankara was accused of backing when it thought ISIL would help topple the Syrian regime — now pose a security threat along the southern border and even within Turkey itself.

But pro-democracy groups will not be pleased that Erdogan’s AK party is being rewarded. In recent months, an authoritarian crackdown on political dissent has escalated, including a series of high-profile arrests of journalists and rights activists. Just last week, three reporters for the reputable daily Hurriyet were arrested for alleged espionage after publishing an article that accused Ankara of shipping arms to rebel groups in Syria. Meanwhile, the government continues to wage a heavy-handed crackdown on the Kurdish PKK separatists in the southeast, a campaign that often widens to include peaceful Kurdish activists and journalists covering the crisis.

As far as the refugee issue is concerned, there was some hope that the increased EU aid would soften the blow of the oncoming winter, which is always particularly difficult for refugees. Few details have been provided on how the $3.2 billion will be apportioned, but it will reportedly fund new efforts to improve access to health care and education for refugee children. Turkey is also reportedly considering allowing Syrian refugees to apply for work visas, a critical step toward integration that Ankara has long resisted.

On a wider level, however, there are concerns that the deal reflects a shortsighted strategy of throwing money at the crisis in order to keep it contained. The "hands-off" approach favored by many in Europe reflects the growing anti-refugee sentiment tacross the continent, where a surging right-wing current argues that Syrians pose a major security threat and should be kept away. For some, the recent attacks in Paris vindicated fears that ISIL would sneak “clean-skin” operatives onto European shores in order to carry out attacks — even though no Syrian refugees were involved in the Paris attacks.

Several European nations, especially Germany and Sweden, have agreed to resettle hundreds of thousands of refugees, but their generosity has its limits. According to the UNHCR, close to 5,000 refugees are landing in Greece every day, mostly by way of Turkey. More than 100,000 have braved the Mediterranean Sea — statistically the deadliest migrant crossing in the world — in November alone.

Rights advocates call for host governments to integrate Syrian refugees in society, until they can return or be resettled elsewhere, and for borders to remain open to legitimate asylum-seekers in Europe. But Syria's neighbors, including Turkey, say they bear an unfair share of the burden for sheltering Syria's four million refugees. Both Turkey and Jordan have shuttered their borders with Syria in protest from time to time, trapping would-be refugees in a war zone.

“At the end of day, the EU and Turkey have to solve the root cause of the problem, because these people are not going anywhere,” said Tol of the Center for Turkish Studies. “And if Turkey fails to integrate them, they will [continue to] leave and their first destination will be Europe. Giving work permits is a good first step, but it will take more than that.”

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