Is the Refugee Crisis an Opportunity for Turkey-EU Relations?

EU countries have now realized the threat of the Syrian refugee crisis reaching their borders, which Turkey has been warning them about since the beginning, and thus have come to solve the problem through working with Ankara.

With the Nov. 1 parliamentary elections just around the corner, the Syrian conflict remains the top item on the Turkish government’s foreign policy agenda. Until recently, the main problems related to the Syrian civil war included foreign terrorist fighters and the suffering of refugees. Currently, the conflict represents a greater national security threat than before, considering that the PKK saw the Democratic Union Party’s (PYD) advances in northern Syria as an opportunity to end the two-year cease-fire and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) has been retaliating against Turkey for fighting terrorism.

The Syrian conflict, in the meanwhile, jumpstarted Turkey’s relations with the European Union. On Sunday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel traveled to Istanbul for a working visit whose main subject was the possibility of cooperation with regard to the Syrian refugee crisis. The fact that Europe’s most powerful turned a blind eye to mounting criticism on Western media and arrived in Turkey just days before the elections indicates how seriously EU leaders take the problem at hand.

While the EU is trying to deal with the current influx of refugees, Russia, in cooperation with the Assad regime, is further destabilizing Syria to possibly trigger a new exodus. At this point, approximately 7,000 Syrian refugees reach Europe every day. In response to the greatest humanitarian challenge that the EU has faced in its history, the German government has taken steps to work with Turkey to stop the influx of refugees. Furthermore, to keep Europe safe, Brussels must make sure that Turkey does not end up in trouble.

According to sources, Turkey and Germany agreed on four issues as a result of Merkel’s meetings with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu. These are one, visa-free travel for Turkish citizens, two, a 3 billion euro financial aid package, three, Turkey’s recognition as a safe country for refugees, and four, the opening of three new chapters in Turkey’s EU membership negotiations. Moving forward, Ankara and Berlin want the readmission agreement and visa liberation to enter into force simultaneously in 2016. Another condition is for Brussels to invite Turkey to EU summits and for Turkish officials to appear in the family photo.

Although the two governments made progress on Sunday, the question inevitably comes to mind of whether the EU can consider the refugee crisis solved without taking any steps to restore Syria’s stability. The answer is no. With violent conflicts haunting a number of countries, including Libya and Syria, Brussels cannot afford to avoid the tough questions. The EU, however, has no intention of fixing the problem. Instead, EU leaders are seeking a short-term remedy.

Another important question relates to the possibility that the refugee crisis might be giving new momentum to Turkey’s EU membership bid. Historically, the European Union promoted integration to address pressing problems and one wonders whether Brussels might grow supportive of Turkey’s accession to solve the refugee crisis. The negotiations might regain momentum provided the EU uses the refugee issue, a security challenge that will cost the EU at least 50 billion euros, as a means to promote structural cooperation with Ankara. With Cypriot leaders making progress in reunification talks and possibly creating a joint state by March 2016, Turkey’s membership in the European Union might become a more acceptable idea. Nonetheless, it will undoubtedly take a long time for the EU to put integration, which has been shelved since former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and former French President Jacques Chirac left politics and the EU was hit by the 2008 financial crisis, back on the table. As such, the refugee crisis presents Turkey and the EU with an opportunity to work together, but Germany has no reason to push for anything more than privileged partnership, which makes it less likely for Ankara to have a seat at the EU table anytime soon.

There is no doubt that the prospect of EU membership had a positive influence on Turkey’s democratization and stability between 1999 and 2006. As such, renewed interest in the negotiations would have a positive impact on the country at this time. The upcoming elections could end domestic tensions and polarization while encouraging Ankara and Brussels to work together on a positive agenda. Over the coming months, Turkey’s next government must make sure to push Brussels into opening new chapters of the accession talks.

[Daily Sabah, October 22, 2015]

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