EU’s Turkey decision will be a strategic one

EU’s Turkey decision will be a strategic one

On Nov. 5, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and European Parliament President Martin Schulz were on the Aegean island of Lesvos, which is much closer to Turkey than it is to the Greek mainland, carrying out observations over the ongoing influx of Syrian refugees.

Lesvos is a significant stepping stone for many refugees crossing from Turkey, trying to make their way to western and northern Europe to find shelter in the EU. By coincidence or not, during their visit to the island Tsipras and Schulz welcomed a boat full of migrants escaping the four-year-long civil war in Syria. 

The EU - which had put little effort into mitigating the consequences of the Syrian tragedy, perhaps apart from on the issue of foreign terrorist fighters joining the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL) and coming back - suddenly realized the importance of the Syrian war when migrants started piling up on its borders.

European politicians started to criticize themselves for not sharing the burden of refugees with Turkey, which has currently hosted more than 2 million for the last four years. They also started to realize just how important Turkey is for the EU on such issue.

EU politicians want to stop refugees crossing over while they are still in Turkey. They hope that the country, whose membership bid they have been stalling for decades, would agree to cooperate, also considering the possibility that Turkey would simply give up hosting refugees if no agreement was struck.

The question of Frans Timmermens, the number two official at the EU Commission, to Turkish Foreign Minister Feridun Sinirlioğlu in Istanbul on Oct. 14, asking what Turkey’s demands were, was just one indication of how Brussels still fails to see the real dimension of the problem. Turkey wants a strategic relationship with the EU that could end up in full integration; it does not want simply a tactical relationship with some temporary benefits.

The day after Timmermens’ visit, German Chancellor Angela Merkel was in Istanbul to discuss a joint EU policy with Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu and President Tayyip Erdoğan. A consensus was reached on a framework agreement, encompassing a revival of Turkey’s practically frozen EU membership process and also the refugee issue.

Problems between the two sides are greater than just being about keeping refugees in Turkey. One major issue is the parallel ongoing process to find a solution to the Cyprus problem and reunite the Turkish and Greek sides of the island.

Actually, there are politicians who see the real dimension of the issue. In his recent article on the Project Syndicate website titled “The return of geopolitics to Europe,” former German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer wrote the following:

“Turkey is even more important for European interests in this regard. European leaders gravely miscalculated at the start of Turkey’s EU accession talks, believing that close ties would make the Middle East’s conflicts Europe’s problem. As current experience shows, in the absence of firm ties with Turkey, Europe’s influence in the region and beyond – from the Black Sea to Central Asia – is practically zero.”

The ball is in the EU’s court. Its final decision could end up changing global balances.