Syria crisis brought Turkey and EU closer together

Syria crisis brought Turkey and EU closer together

It is true that there is mistrust. The EU wants to be sure that Turkey will keep its promise to host Syrian refugees trying to go to Europe until a political settlement is reached in Syria; Turkey, meanwhile, does not want to experience the same frustration that it had in 2004 when the EU did not keep its Cyprus referendum promise. That broken vow was one of the main reasons for the growing gap between Ankara and Brussels in subsequent years.

But the scale of the Syrian refugee crisis, which the EU has started to feel keenly four years after the start of the civil war, seems to be closing that gap. The Syrian refugee crisis could provide an opportunity for both Turkey and the EU to reset relations, which had almost been in deep freeze until a few months ago.

Turkish and EU officials have been working on an action plan for more than a month - since just a few days after the dead body of a four-year-old Syrian Kurdish boy Aylan Kurdi hit the shores of the Turkish resort Bodrum. The boat smuggling them to Greece had sunk on Sept. 2 and Kurdi became a tragic symbol of the Syrian refugee influx to the EU. Germany is the most attractive terminal for many, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel visited Turkey on Oct. 18, after which they produced a joint action plan.

Despite strong objections from within the EU to tying refugee plans to Turkey’s EU membership candidacy, the action plan acknowledged Turkish demands for conceptual cooperation. Ankara made it clear that only a strategic outlook could solve current and future problems, otherwise Turkey could continue its efforts (to host 2 million refugees, spending nearly $8 billion so far) without EU support. 

Turkey demanded four points in order to start cooperation immediately. After she met with Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu and then President Tayyip Erdoğan in Istanbul, Merkel said she would forward these points to other EU leaders. They are as follows: 

- The re-admission agreement, to be linked to the free travel of Turkish citizens in the Schengen states, should be sped up to be ready by the summer of 2016.

- Six of remaining chapters for Turkey’s EU membership negotiations should be opened up immediately: Energy; economic and fiscal policies; judiciary and basic rights; justice, freedoms and security; education and culture; and foreign, security and defense policies.

- Turkey should be invited to EU summits as a candidate country, as was the case before.

- Funds to help Syrian refugees will not be spent from EU allocations to Turkey but from a newly established EU fund to tackle the problem. 

Merkel will be facing some problems. She will have to bend some arms and give some concessions within the EU in order to convince all 28 partners. The Republic of Cyprus, for example, which has vetoes on opening of some of the chapters mentioned, objected to the plan immediately after Merkel’s statement in Istanbul. It should be noted that a possible reanimation in Turkey-EU relations would be taking place in parallel to the ongoing talks between Greek and Turkish Cypriots for a reunification plan (perhaps the last one) under the auspices of the U.N. secretary general.

But there are also signs that the EU is serious about re-activating the integration process this time. Reports about postponing until after the Nov. 1 election the announcement of Turkey’s annual Progress Report, which is expected to be critical of the quality of Turkish democracy, show that Brussels does not want to upset Erdoğan and Davutoğlu.

The quality of Turkish democracy, from the condition of the judiciary to pressures on free media, has been deteriorating ever since Turkey turned its face from a dismissive Europe to the Middle East at the start of the Arab Spring. Now, steps to bring momentum back to Turkey’s EU accession process - at the expense of sweeping anti-democratic violations under the joint-plan carpet - might be disappointing in the short run. But if they lead to the country becoming closer to the EU in the long run then they could ultimately help democracy in Turkey.  They could also help security in Europe and perhaps even contribute to a humanitarian solution of the Syrian situation.