Can the EU solve the Syrian refugee crisis without Turkey?
Can the European Union (EU) solve its crisis with the Syrian refugees without the help of Turkey?
If the answer was affirmative, there would be no EU delegations shuttling between Brussels and Ankara at a pace that nobody has seen for the last five years.
Of course, the refugees are not only from Syria. It would not be a prophecy to say that a bigger issue coming to Europe will be from sub-Saharan Africa in the coming years. That is why the EU has come together with a number of Africa countries yesterday on Nov. 11 in Malta. The solution on the table as it seems now was something that was to be proposed to Turkey originally: give money to Africans to take measures to keep the refugees on the continent, mainly police measures.
It did not work for Turkey because of the nature and history of the relations between the EU and Turkey.
Turkey has been in the waiting room of the EU since the Accession Agreement of 1963, the membership Application of 1987, the confirmation of its candidacy in 1999 and the Cyprus fake by Brussels in 2004. Yes, there were serious deficits in the rights and freedoms outlook of Turkey; yes, Turkey was a populous and poor country but none of these issues got any better as the EU pushed Turkey away, probably because of the never officially admitted reason of having a Muslim population.
Disappointed by unkept promises by the EU, especially regarding Cyprus, when Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) governments turned their face to the East and South and became deeply involved in Middle Eastern affairs with the break of the Arab Spring late 2010, the gap between Turkey and the EU increased. Political relations have almost been put into the fridge, which also did not help the rights and freedoms picture improve in Turkey.
The picture suddenly changed when the refugees flooded over Turkey at the end of the fourth year of the civil war in Syria and reached the gates of EU countries with the heart-breaking picture of three-year-old Syrian Kurdish refugee Aylan Kurdi on Turkish shores, a casualty of the refugee boat route to Greece, on Sept. 2.
When EU officials attempted to come to Turkey with what Ankara has been calling an “indecent proposal” to keep refugees in Turkey in return for money, the reply was to put Turkish-EU relations back on a strategic track, rather than a “police measures” track. Then the EU Summit in October was held. The EU Commission decided to postpone a critical “progress report” until after the Nov. 1 elections in order not to make the Turkish government upset, while German Chancellor Angela Merkel travelled to Istanbul to meet President Tayyip Erdoğan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu to talk on a plan mostly drafted by Foreign Minister Feridun Sinirlioğlu and Frans Timmermans, the vice president of the commission. The plan suggests settlement of Syrian refugees in Turkey and also activating Turkey’s membership process with the EU, including visa-free travel for Turkish citizens within the Schengen states in 2016 and opening up of six negotiating chapters as soon as possible.
But some of those chapters have been vetoed of the Greek Cypriot government. Which makes eyes turn to the Cyprus talks under the auspices of the United Nations, which might come to a point of no return in the first half of 2016, almost in parallel with Turkey’s talks with EU and not only that.
Following a gradual but clear shift in its Syria policy, Turkey is now in the middle of the negotiation table for the future of Syria, together with the U.S., Russia and Saudi Arabia. Sinirloğlu, who met with Timmermans once again on Nov. 11 in Ankara is to fly to Vienna for Syria talks on Nov. 14 with an extended group of 19. In a way, this is a situation where the Syria civil war, the Syrian refugee crisis of EU, EU’s future with Turkey and Cyprus problems are intermingled.
Going back to square one, if the EU had a way to solve the refugee crisis without Turkey’s help, it would try that first.