Can Turkey turn the Syrian migrant crisis into an EU opportunity?

Can Turkey turn the Syrian migrant crisis into an EU opportunity?

It was Oct. 15, three days before her visit to Turkey on Oct. 18, when German Chancellor Angela Merkel said she would tell Turkish leaders not to tie the measures needed to be taken to stop the Syrian refugee influx to the country’s future membership in the European Union.

That statement was also before a key meeting of the EU Council - which lasted for nearly 7 hours - where there were proposals in order for Turkey to take harder steps to stop the migration. The European press wrote that if Turkey was given money and if the annual Progress Report - allegedly full of criticism on the quality of democracy - would be postponed, it would be possible to convince Ankara on a new measure, for example to approve the Readmission Agreement, which is key for migration problems.

Merkel had decided to take this visit at an unusual time - two weeks before the key Nov. 1 reelection - both to show the urgency of the issue for her and perhaps as a gesture to President Tayyip Erdoğan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, as there are hundreds of thousands of Turkish voters in Germany.  

On the day that Merkel made that remark, three key members of the EU Commission were in Turkey to coordinate the efforts. According to media reports, the contacts between them continued until the early hours of Oct. 16. Towards the end of the morning, PM Davutoğlu appeared on TV and said it was not possible for Turkey to approve the Readmission Agreement before the EU agrees to free travel of Turkish citizens within the Schengen states by 2016.

In the afternoon hours, Turkish Foreign Minister Feridun Sinirlioğlu briefed the press on details about the background, underlining that Ankara did not see the entire process as bargaining and considered it as a part of strategic relations between Turkey and the EU; it was too big to be handled by police measures alone. Following that statement the EU Commission put its proposals for an “EU-Turkish Joint Action Plan” with an “ad referendum” provisional note confirming what Sinirlioğlu had said.

The Turkish government actually had four basic demands for a conceptual cooperation on refugees:

1 - The funds (going from 500,000 euros to 3 billion according to press reports) should not be allocated from EU funds as a part of the accession process. The crisis was not a Turkish crisis and the payment should be done for Syrian refugees by a joint commission.

2 - The visa regime should be made easy with simultaneous implementation of Schengen and readmission schemes by 2016.

3 - At least six of the chapters for membership negotiations should be opened immediately. 

4 - Turkey should be invited to EU summits with its candidate status, as before.

Those are all points contradicting what Merkel had said a day before.

And yesterday, on Oct. 18, Merkel said in a joint press conference with Davutoğlu that she thought Turkey had a point in all four demands, she supported them and in a way said she would talk about them to the other members of the EU (she particularly mentioned the name of Cyprus) in order to make progress on the problem, which is a hot topic for her back in Germany.

Will Turkey be able to turn the Syrian refugee crisis into an opportunity for its practically frozen EU membership scheme? And without taking initiative on that, acting upon Germany’s initiative? It might be early to give a positive answer to that right now. But if that becomes true, that could be good for Germany, for the EU, for Syrian refugees and for the quality of democracy in Turkey.