EU needs Turkey for 2,500 foreign fighters fleeing Syria

EU needs Turkey for 2,500 foreign fighters fleeing Syria

Around 5,000 foreign fighters from Western Europe are believed to be fighting for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). 

As the fighting to oust ISIL from Iraq and Syria rages on, the whereabouts of these foreign fighters after the potential defeat of ISIL seems to have started to loom in the radar. That is especially the case for European countries contributing to the coalition forces that help the local forces’ ground offensive via aerial support.

It is estimated that around half of the foreign fighters from Western Europe are likely to die in the war, but the other half will flee Syria to return to their respective countries after the defeat of ISIL. Which road will they be using? One route will certainly be through Turkey. 

Whether it is a curse or a blessing, Turkey’s geographical location once again weighs heavily when it comes to Ankara-Brussels relations. 

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan recently threatened to “open the gates” to refugees crossing to Europe. Does that blackmail include the threat that foreign fighters could also find safe passage to Europe? Regardless of what the intentions of Erdoğan may be, European capitals must certainly factor in this possibility. After all, even if it might not be Turkish government policy to turn a blind eye to foreign fighters fleeing Syria to Europe, intensive cooperation is required between Ankara and European capitals to minimize foreign fighters’ “freedom of movement.”

Can the Europeans secure the Turkish government’s cooperation if the latter’s perception is that Europe has a double standard when it comes to cooperation against the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)?
European capitals have been careless (to say the least) in respecting Turkey’s sensitivities on this issue.

 Recently banning Erdoğan from addressing the Turkish community in Germany via a court decision - while letting a high-level PKK official talk via Skype in the same city at the same time - has not been taken lightly by Ankara.

Allowing a PKK tent to be set up open in front of the European Commission, while the latter was trying to finalize a cooperation agreement between the Turkish authorities and the Interpol, is not exactly smart unless the Belgian authorities see some kind of a value in obstructing anti-terror cooperation with Turkey.

What next?

So, in view of the current political and security considerations, how will the two sides deal with the current crisis in relations?

It is obvious that neither EU capitals nor Erdoğan are interested in the “transformational” relationship of Turkey’s accession process. The preference is rather for a “transactional” relationship. But what to do about the membership process? Neither side wants to be the one who pulls the plug.

 My sense is that the Turkish government might come up with a last minute effort, like making a minor change in the terror law that would look satisfactory for the EU side. Ankara might still try to take the upper hand by sending the ball to the EU’s side of the court and saying, “we’ve fulfilled all necessary criteria for visa-free travel, what now?”

Even if the EU was to give a green light to visa-free travel for Turks, will the European Parliament, whose decision is required, also vote “yes”?

If it was to vote “no,” that would give more ammunition to Erdoğan for EU bashing. But he might still refrain from being the one to finally end Turkey’s EU accession process.

At the end of the day, that membership process is likely remain “alive but non-active,” as one European diplomat recently suggested to me.