Turkey between the gates of Syria and the EU

Turkey between the gates of Syria and the EU

The European Union has just opened another membership negotiation chapter with Turkey, after a five-year lull in relations as Ankara struggles with serious foreign and domestic problems.

Chapter 17 on Economic and Monetary Policy is one of six chapters that the Turkish government asked to be opened “immediately,” in order to put into action a conceptual plan to contain the influx of Syrian refugees to the EU via Turkey. The plan was framed during German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s visit to Turkey on Oct. 18 to talk to Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, following an emergency meeting of EU leaders on the refugee problem. 

Turkey’s other three conditions for the implementation of the plan were the granting of visa-free travel to Schengen countries to Turkish citizens by mid-2016 (at the same time as the re-admission agreement), the establishment of a fund for the containment of refugees in Turkey, and the granting of Turkey’s representation at EU summits as a “candidate country.”

So opening Chapter 17 is only a part of that package. Greek Cyprus has a veto on the remaining five chapters that the Turkish government wanted to be opened before the re-admission agreement. Those five chapters are Chapter 15 on Energy; Chapter 23 on the Judiciary and Fundamental Rights; Chapter 24 on Justice, Freedom and Security; Chapter 26 on Education and Culture; and Chapter 31 on Foreign Security and Defense Policy. There is still no sign whether the EU Commission has convinced the Greek Cypriot government to lift its vetos, but EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has assured Turkish PM Davutoğlu that those chapters will be opened eventually. That is taken in Ankara as no more than a goodwill gesture, knowing that legal action cannot be taken until the EU Council, which is due to meet on Dec. 17, has passed a ruling. Still, Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu and EU Affairs Minister Volkan Bozkır said in Brussels on Dec. 14 during the ceremony to open Chapter 17 that developments are “promising.”

But as things have started to move forward on Turkey’s Western front, the situation is looking more mixed domestically and in its immediate neighborhood.

In the predominantly Kurdish-populated southeast, bordering both Syria and Iraq, the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) is continuing its campaign to establish self-declared “autonomous zones” within towns, while the government retaliates in the form of curfews and police operations. In addition to the curfew in the Sur district in the center of Diyarbakır, curfews in Cizre and Silopi were imposed on Dec. 14. The Health Ministry has asked all personnel in those areas to stay inside hospitals and clinics in one-week shifts, in order to minimize risks entering and exiting due to sporadic clashes between PKK militants and the security forces.

The Education Ministry has asked all teachers in Cizre and Silopi to evacuate their schools (in the PKK-controlled Sur, four schools and a mosque were set alight last week) and return to their hometowns. Footage showing teachers trying to escape those areas on Dec. 13 and 14 was very moving.

Meanwhile, press freedom in Turkey is experiencing particular trouble. Two prominent journalists Can Dündar and Erdem Gül have been in jail pending trial since Nov. 26, due to be tried on charges of “military espionage” and “assisting a terrorist organization.” Such charges against journalists are common in Asian countries, not European ones. Turkish journalism associations and opposition parties have repeatedly appealed to the EU to not ignore basic principles of freedom in the name of not upsetting the Turkish government over the Syrian refugee crisis.

Ankara is also having problems in Iraq. Despite President Erdoğan’s remarks last week that Turkey would not withdraw its soldiers from the Bashiqa camp, where it says its military personnel have been training Iraqi civilians against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), the Turkish military confirmed on Dec. 14 that “some” troop had left the camp by midday.

In war-torn Syria, along with serious ongoing tension with Moscow after Turkey’s downing of the Russian jet on Nov. 24 for violating Turkish airspace, pressure is mounting on Ankara to close down a critical 98 km strip of the 910 km border in order to halt any possible ISIL infiltrations. Both Erdoğan and Davutoğlu have asked the U.S.-led coalition to keep it open, under controls, as a gate to Syria. But U.S. President Barack Obama’s remarks that he “repeatedly” told Erdoğan that the border should be completely closed have been seconded by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov - a rare point on which the two rivals agree.

The closure of the border could put an end to the policies that Turkey has pursued in Syria for the last four years. But it could also mark a new beginning for the opening of new possibilities with the EU via new accession chapters, as it would mean sealing Turkey’s borders. Indeed, Turkish citizens are now expecting to be granted visa-free travel within the EU next year.