It doesn’t bode well when Recep Tayyip Erdogan appears to hold the moral high ground. But such was the situation in Brussels earlier this week when Erdogan, Turkey’s authoritarian president, met with European Union leaders and hashed out plans to manage the vast and ongoing movement of refugees to Europe.
“While we host 2.2 million refugees, Europe as a whole houses less than 250,000 refugees in total,” Erdogan said, adding that despite Turkey’s bordering civil-war-torn Syria, “we did not close our doors to the refugees and asylum seekers who fled to our country.”
He did not go to Belgium to deliver a humanitarian invocation. He went to wield a newfound power over the EU — clout that Turkey hasn’t enjoyed for years. European nations are now desperate to stem the flow of refugees arriving via Turkey, largely from Syria and Iraq. But Erdogan has made clear that Turkey will not serve as a buffer zone against migration into fortress Europe without considerable quid pro quo.
Meanwhile, EU leaders are spinning the negotiations as realpolitik — a necessary cooperation with a problematic government to deal with a crisis. “It is clear that we need Turkey,” said European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker. This language of necessity masks the fact that Europe is making a conscious decision to shore up its borders and that the “Refugees welcome” message seen on protest signs is a slogan that comes with a whole lot of small print.
The EU’s relationship with Turkey has raised existential questions about European identity from the start of Turkey’s bid to join the union in 1999. Debates over Turkey’s inclusion or exclusion have challenged the idea of Europe as a heterogeneous, secular and principled federation of nations and revealed its caginess about welcoming populations with historical roots outside European secular Christianity — specifically, Turkey’s 99 percent Muslim population.
What we’re seeing today is an extension of this challenge. The largest refugee movement in the continent since World War II has been floridly framed as a battle for the soul of Europe and a challenge for the liberal project to uphold its principled self-image. Negotiations with Erdogan highlight, once again, that no principle is more existentially central to Europe than its ability to control its interior through the exclusion of non-Europeans.
Unsurprisingly, no grand geopolitical shifts came out of this week’s Brussels talks. EU leaders presented a draft action plan, promising to provide $1.1 billion in aid to help Turkey cope with its Syrian and Iraqi refugees. The EU also proposed a plan to liberalize the visa process for Turks wanting to travel in Europe, in exchange for the country’s cooperation with tightening its borders and resettling refugees. (Currently, Turkey is the only EU-candidate country whose citizens need a visa to travel to Europe. The Turkish government, having dragged its feet on improving human rights conditions, was not expected to be granted visa liberalization for some years.) There’s some irony, then, that Turkish citizens will be granted freer movement in exchange for Ankara’s restricting the movement of others.
The EU leaders have not conceded to the rest of the Turkish president’s wish list, including support for establishing a no-fly safe zone in northern Syria by the border with Turkey to settle Syrian refugees there. Erdogan wants Europe to help rebel forces that are friendly with Turkey to flush out the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) from an area in Syria's northern Aleppo province. As Europe would see Turkey as a buffer zone, Turkey would, in turn, see the area relieve its own refugee burden while building a bulwark between its border and ISIL. U.S. and EU officials have thus far stayed away from the proposal, and while discussed in Brussels, it is far from a plan of action.
The question of Turkey’s long-stalled EU membership bid was not even on the table this week. But it may soon be. Erdogan’s cooperation gives him leverage — and we’ve seen other countries go from acting as migration buffer zones to becoming full-fledged EU members.
Before the bloc expanded in 2004 to include the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia and Slovenia, these countries functioned, in the words of historian Tony Judt, “as sort of demographic limes, tampon states that would absorb and block the westward or northward movement of desperate peoples.” Even after these nations joined the EU, they were not immediately included in the Schengen zone of free movement, as Western European concerns about immigrants flooding from the East prevailed.
The history of modern Europe is colored by concerns over refugees as a threat to European identity. Consider the vile, xenophobic riots at asylum shelters in Rostock, Germany, during the 1992 Yugoslav refugee crisis or Greece’s exclusionary practices and rhetoric toward Albanians in the early 1990s. It speaks to the current vulnerability of Europe as a coherent union that Turkey has more power and leverage over EU decision-making as a refugee buffer zone with a pariah authoritarian leader than as a potential member state.
A certain idea of Europe has always conceived of Turkey as an outsider, the limit case of not quite Europe, that helps define what “real” Europe gets to be. Erdogan needled at this thought when he slammed Europe as an “Islamophobic Christian club” for having blocked Turkey’s membership in 2013 and stalling on the issue since. While his statement conveniently ignored other reasons for Turkey’s exclusion — his authoritarian bent, draconian suppression of protest and free press and paranoid crushing of perceived enemies — his point about Europe as a Christian project is not without merit. Europe refuses to admit that its specific brand of Enlightenment secularism is historically and culturally rooted in, perhaps haunted by, Western European Christianity. It was, after all, Christian Democrat Angela Merkel who in 2004 wrote that the EU maintains a “value system that has historical roots” when she argued for Turkey to gain “privileged partnership” status with the EU but not membership in it.
Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian, undemocratic rule makes it easy to forget that in the mid-2000s, Turkey began acting more and more in line with the EU’s Copenhagen criteria, which assert member states uphold principles of democracy, human rights protections and the rule of law. EU expansion has overlooked troubling abrogations of these criteria; the persecution of Roma populations in Hungary, Romania and Slovakia, for instance, did not stop their 2004 accession.
Turkey, with a secular constitution and a 99 percent Muslim population, poses a different existential question for Europe, one unavoidably tinged with Islamophobia. EU officials’ statements this week about how Europe needs Turkey should include the qualifier “as an outsider.” We should not be surprised that Erdogan’s persecution of Kurds and quashing of free speech will not dissuade Europe from dealing with him now that it needs him. And as an outsider, even the most draconian Turkish government isn’t an existential challenge to Europe. It’s just another unpleasant but conveniently located bedfellow.
“We’re embracing a government we really don’t like at all,” one unnamed European diplomat said in Brussels, according to The Financial Times. “We have to bring down this flow of migrants. It has become realpolitik.”
The phrasing “bringing down this flow” is significant in assessing Europe’s priorities. The concern is over the flow to Europe; the lives of the refugees are treated more as a realpolitik variable.