March agreement holds key to Turkish-EU ties
Turkish-EU ties are increasingly in the throes of debilitating brinkmanship based on mutual phobias and prejudices that defy logic. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is adamant that if he does not get what he wants from the EU under the migration agreement arrived at in March, then Turkey will not honor its part of the deal.
This simple position also gains him points among Turks who increasingly believe that no good ever came to their country from Europe, which they say will never admit Turkey as a member anyway even if Ankara fulfills every requirement.
Put starkly, what Erdoğan is saying is that if the visa waiver for Turks travelling to Europe does not go through in October, Ankara will put an end to its part of the deal and leave Europe to cope with the refugee crisis on its own.
Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz believes the EU does not need this agreement with Turkey, which he alleges Ankara is using to blackmail Europe. If so, he should be doing a better job of convincing his EU partners.
Others in Europe also say they will not bow to Turkish blackmail but are concerned that the March agreement may fall through, especially now they admit that Turkey is honoring its part of the deal on illegal immigrants.
Put another way, Europe does not for now appear to have a better game plan than the March agreement. As matters stand, getting all 28 members to agree on a new plan will also be extremely difficult, given the divisions on this topic in the EU.
EU officials are nevertheless throwing the book at Turkey and saying that if Ankara does not alter its terrorism law, the visa deal will not go through. There is no way Ankara will bow to this pressure, and so we have the brinkmanship mentioned.
It is clear that if Europe wants to maintain cooperation with Turkey on issues like illegal migration, refugees and combatting terrorism, it will have to take an executive decision regarding the visa issue. This will be easier to do since Ankara has fulfilled most technical preconditions, with only a few left.
There appear to be political rather than practical considerations behind the EU’s throwing the book at Turkey in this manner. After all, citizens of Mexico (population 122 million), Columbia (population 47 million) and Venezuela (population 30 million) – to name just a few countries - can enter Europe without a Schengen visa, although their countries are not candidates for membership.
Neither are these countries high on the list of democratic countries that respect human rights to the letter. Most Turks may have been ignorant of such glaring inconsistencies by the EU in the past but they are learning fast.
Turkey is clearly not the country it was 20 years ago. Despite all its troubles, it has demonstrated its economic potential and vital political place in a highly volatile part of the world, which is of key importance to the West as a whole.
By trying to keep Turkey at a clinical distance from itself with false promises, Europe has also provided an opportunity for this country to try and stand on its own feet. It is also a fallacy to argue, as some have, that Turkey needs the EU because it depends on its trade with Europe. No EU country is going to throw away any advantages it is reaping from economic ties with Turkey merely to please some politician or pressure group.
Just like the agreement that established the Coal and Steel Community at the time, which eventually became the EU, the March agreement between Turkey and the EU has become the basic document today that will determine the future of ties.
That is why both sides will have to think hard and fast with regard to the brinkmanship they are maintaining over this agreement. It could be the document that finally scuttles Turkish-EU ties, leaving both sides worse off than first thought.