Does the EU have another option on migrants?

Does the EU have another option on migrants?

Turkey’s new European Union Affairs Minister Ömer Çelik said on May 25 that integrating with the EU was “not Turkey’s only option.”

This does not mean that Turkey could get integrated with or form other unions similar to the EU: There isn’t one in sight anyway. What’s more, as British Prime Minister David Cameron, who is one of the supporters of Turkey’s EU integration, recently said during the U.K.’s Brexit row, Ankara’s EU membership is not in sight for at least the next few decades.

Still, becoming a member of the EU remains Turkey’s official strategy. In fact it is the only strategy that has been approved by parliament as a “national program” for years.

It is true that EU nations are deterred by Turkey’s high population, relatively weak economy, majority Muslim religion, and sensitive geographic location - especially since the outbreak of the war in Syria, which has triggered a major migration flow into the EU. 

But it is also true that Turkish governments (not just this one) and a majority of Turkish citizens are fed up with new problems being raised by the EU whenever progress is made on the Turkish side, ever since the first accession agreement in 1963. No one in Turkey truly believes that the EU will take in Turkey any time soon, including those who support the idea for the good of Turkish democracy, rights and freedoms, and the economy. But even some in Turkey who are against full integration with the EU are in favor of being anchored by it. Around half of Turkish exports, particularly those with high added value, go to EU member countries. What’s more, since the EU started to go cold on Turkey from the mid-2000s, moves taken for the democratization of politics and the economy started to shatter.

It is true that Turkey has survived so far without being a member of the EU, so it is also true that the EU is not the country’s only option. But it is true that the EU remains Turkey’s best option.

Minister Çelik’s words point to the acute problem between Turkey and the EU over the immigration deal and the chapter on visa-free travel for Turkish citizens. President Tayyip Erdoğan has repeatedly said that if Brussels does not keep its promise on the visa deal – just because it is insisting on a revision to the anti-terrorism law at a time when Turkey is engaged in a fierce anti-terror fight against the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) - it can forget about the entire deal. 

Erdoğan said on May 24 that while accusing Ankara of not fulfilling its commitments, EU leaders forget that it is thanks to Turkey’s efforts that illegal migration has effectively been halted over the Aegean Sea (in cooperation with Greece). He previously spoke about “waving goodbye” to migrants who want to travel to Europe through Turkey, as the number of refugees in the country approaches 3 million, roughly 2.5 million of whom are from Syria.

Recently the Bulgarian government announced that it would erect new barbed wire fences along the border with Turkey. That is not the way that the EU, the most successful peace and development project of modern times, should handle a humanitarian issue.

The fact is that there is no alternative option in sight for the EU, other than implementing the deal with Turkey on immigration. German Chancellor Angela Merkel can see that. It is obvious from her statements after meeting with Erdoğan in Istanbul on May 23 that she does not want to break the ties between Turkey and the EU. She wants a solution, knowing that if the agreement falls through EU governments are likely to face much bigger problems than providing visa-free travel to Turkish citizens.