Turkey, EU face difficult task on Syria’s refugees

Turkey, EU face difficult task on Syria’s refugees

A summit between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and two high-level EU officials, EU Council President Charles Michel and EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, has taken place as tens of thousands of migrants remain stranded along the Turkish-Greek border.

The summit in Brussels followed a deal between Erdoğan and Russian President Vladimir Putin on Idlib which ushered in a fragile, temporary ceasefire in the rebel-held pocket. As the deal with Putin has eased the pressure from Syrian refugees on Turkey’s southern borders, Erdoğan wanted to foster more European engagement concerning Idlib-related developments.

Erdoğan’s itinerary in Brussels included a meeting with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg. He repeated Turkey’s concrete demands for the protection of NATO’s borders through the augmentation of its air defense capacity. Turkey hopes NATO will reach a decision to this end during a meeting at its headquarters on March 11.

Diplomats who follow the situation closely suggest that the ball is in the United States and United Kingdom’s court when it comes to providing military assistance to Turkey through the deployment of the Patriot air defense system or other military equipment. Many European allies see no imminent missile threat from Syria and therefore have no intention of deploying any system on Turkish soil.

Turkey’s expectation from the European Union is more complicated, though. It seeks the revision of a March 2016 statement that outlines the framework of Ankara-Brussels cooperation to address the continued migrant challenge.

In a holistic approach, Turkey wants the EU to accelerate its provision of 3+3 billion euros in financial assistance in line with the 2016 statement, as well as offer an additional financial package to address the ongoing crisis in Idlib. Also on Turkey’s wish list from the March 2016 statement is visa liberalization for Turkish nationals, the modernization of the customs union and the revival of EU accession talks.

The bloc’s position is pretty different. Although Brussels is open for discussions on revisiting the March 2016 statement, it just wants to limit these talks to the financial dimension of the agreement. Reviving accession talks and granting Turkish nationals visa-free entrance to the Schengen zone before Turkey fulfills the accession package’s 72 benchmarks are out of question. Many experts are of the same opinion that one should wait until Germany resumes the EU’s term presidency before considering whether the sides should launch talks about upgrading the customs union.

Along with these technical issues, there are also some psychological and political parameters that define the EU response. Turkey’s decision to open the gates for migrants wishing to go to Europe via Greece makes the situation difficult for the EU to engage in negotiations with Ankara. The 2016 agreement was a product of a massive refugee influx toward Europe, but many EU countries have criticized Turkey for coercing the EU to negotiate over the new migrant flow. They characterize this as a set-up against the EU amid concerns that it won’t lead to a new deal with Turkey.

Despite differences, the two sides have agreed to sustain dialogue to this end. There seem to be two related tracks: The first will be between Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu and the EU’s high representative for foreign and security policy, Josep Borrell. These two men will work on a road map until March 26, the day when the EU leaders meet at a summit.

The second track is supposed to be carried out by Erdoğan, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel through a summit that will reportedly occur in Istanbul on March 17.

Despite existing problems, Erdoğan’s willingness to travel to Brussels and hold talks with EU leaders, combined with the EU’s relatively positive reception, should be considered positive. However, a breakthrough requires more than a positive climate when it comes to resolving an issue that concerns more than 4 million Syrians. Things would surely be much easier if there had been trust and common understanding between Ankara and Brussels over the past few years.