The case for realism in Turkey-Europe relations

The case for realism in Turkey-Europe relations

“Not a day has passed in Turkey without a domestic security operation against an active ISIL cell,” a security expert noted the other day. “Just follow the news.” We had been talking about the Barcelona terror attack, but the conversation was coming back to Turkey very quickly. 

The problem is that Syrians are now stuck in Turkey. Many have come here to move on to Europe, but since that passage is closed, they are stuck in transit. Some are planning to go back to Syria, but that passage has its own complications. Current conditions in Syria are far from suitable to return to, and the way forward to Europe is barred. This means that there are people in our country who have seen war, know how to kill, and don’t have anywhere else to go. Try to look at the Barcelona attack from this angle. 

So what do we need to do? The security dimension is relatively straight-forward – you control as many variables as you can. Refugees are a different matter. You cannot look after them as if they are natural disaster victims. These are people whose framework for life has been destroyed, so they need a new framework to live in. They need the means to look after themselves. That’s why labor market integration is key. Refugees either need to become citizens of your country or at least be given work permits.

According to research company Metropoll’s July survey, 87 percent of Turkish nationals are against the idea of granting Turkish citizenship to Syrian refugees. Some 75 percent also oppose the idea of Syrians getting work permits. It is no wonder that we currently have only 15,000 Syrians with work permits out of the 3 million refugees in Turkey. The vast majority of Syrians work in the informal sector, while the government keeps both eyes closed. In Jordan, the figure with work permits is 37,000 out of 670,000 refugees. In Lebanon, there are one million Syrians and only 1,233 have work permits. 

Why? As of May 2017, there were 3.25 million unemployed people looking for jobs in Turkey. That’s an increase of 330,000 from May 2016, and amounts to a non-agriculture unemployment rate of 12 percent.

 This marks an increase of around 50 percent between 2012 and 2017. Turkey’s unemployment rate is thus three times greater than Germany’s unemployment rate. As a result, with a youth unemployment rate of more than 20 percent and elections approaching in 2019, distributing work permits to Syrian refugees would be political suicide for the Turkish government. 

German politicians are now actively preventing the European Union from engaging more with Turkey. That is unwise. In Turkey, we have learned through the Syria example - at a very dear cost, and very late - that a stable neighbor is a good neighbor. Even the most adamant hawks and most zealous sectarians in Turkey are talking about coming to terms with Bashar al-Assad for the sake of stability. So Europe has a thing or two to learn.

Stability in Turkey means stability in Europe. Stability in Europe means stability in Turkey. But there are obstacles to realizing this reality on both sides. Bashing Erdoğan is certainly an effective voter mobilization tactic in Europe these days. And that is understandable to a degree, considering the content of Turkey’s prisons at the moment and the way the state of emergency has been conducted. But policymakers should always remain conscious of what it takes to maintain the current geopolitical order. 

Similarly, Ankara should be aware that Turks in Europe are under a lot of pressure, and should refrain from statements that could play into the notion that they are a fifth column in Europe. A little bit of sensitivity shouldn’t be too much to ask here.

All parties need to clear the obstacles that they themselves have created for closer cooperation. We need less romance and more realism in these times.