Refugee crisis could revitalize EU ties but not accession talks

Refugee crisis could revitalize EU ties but not accession talks

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Refugee crisis could revitalize EU ties but not accession talks The recent wish to cooperate on the refugee crisis has led to a revival of relations between the European Union and Turkey but the same cannot be expected of Turkey’s accession talks to the 28-nation bloc, an expert has warned.

Reviving the accession talks requires not only the unanimity of all members of the EU but also depends on Turkey fulfilling political criteria, according to Nilgün Arısan Eralp, director of the European Union Institute at The Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey.

How do you evaluate the postponement of the publication of the EU Progress Report until after the Nov. 1 elections?

For the first time, I questioned the credibility of the EU from the point of view of European values. Unfortunately, Realpolitik came before European values this time.

This summer, the refugee crisis knocked on the door of the EU. From the start of 2015, 950,000 refugees have tried to reach Europe. Europeans felt the need to cooperate with Turkey to deal with the refugee crisis. This I can understand; of course, they have to cooperate. What I cannot understand is that they felt the need to postpone the publishing of the progress report in order to be able to have fruitful cooperation with Turkey. There are rumors that this was Turkey’s demand, as the report contained criticism on political criteria, especially fundamental freedoms like media freedom.

But even if they had published it before the elections, I don’t think it would have had an effect on the elections.

It seems, however, that we might see a revival in the accession talks due to the refugee crisis.

Yes, there has been a revival of relations between the EU and Turkey, but I doubt that this is the revival of the accession process.

Yes, we heard that Germany and the European commission had committed themselves to opening some chapters. By the way, I think this is a credibility question for the EU as well. This means these chapters were blocked for political reasons. There are eight suspended chapters because of the Cyprus problem, and that was an EU decision. But certain chapters were blocked without any EU decision. That means the EU has been doing nothing to open these chapters and now, as they felt the need to foster cooperation on the refugee crisis, they committed themselves to opening these chapters.

But decisions are taken by unanimity. Other countries might object and the EU will not be able to deliver. Right after [German Chancellor Angela] Merkel’s visit to Turkey where she said the EU could open some chapters, [Greek Cypriot leader Nikos] Anastasiades said they would keep blocking chapters until there is a solution to the Cyprus problem.

And even if Turkey wants so much to fulfill the conditions that are in the draft action plan for refugees, Turkey might not be able to deliver as well.

Why not?

The main demand of the EU is to keep the Syrian refugees in Turkey. First of all, Syrians are not given refugee status in Turkey. They are defined as visitors. Because of that, they cannot find permanent, sound job opportunities; they cannot benefit from education opportunities; they cannot sufficiently benefit from health services. So they want to leave Turkey. 

No matter what Turkey does and no matter what the EU provides Turkey in terms of material and financial assistance, there will still be people who will want to run away from Turkey and go to Europe. A recent survey of the German Marshall Fund revealed that almost 80 percent of Turkish people think Syrian refugees cannot be integrated in Turkey.

But Turkey and the EU need to cooperate on the refugee crisis. What’s wrong about Turkey saying, “Let’s cooperate, but let’s also revitalize the accession process since instead of dealing with short-term problems, we need to enter into a long-term cooperation.” In addition, there is the prospect of a breakthrough on Cyprus as well.

There is nothing wrong with that approach. But the revival of the accession process cannot be materialized with the cooperation of refugees. The breakthrough in Cyprus might change things, but … the revitalization of talks depends on political criteria as well. 

If you look at the recent progress report and the enlargement strategy, rule of law, freedom of expression and implementing anti-corruption strategies are cited as fundamental requirements of enlargement.

Given the necessity of unanimity in opening chapters and given the state of these fundamentals such as the rule of law and freedom of expression, I don’t think our accession process can be revitalized.

On top all this, tying Turkey’s accession process to cooperation on the refugee issue as well as tying cooperation on the refugee issue to visa liberalization could also backfire and be counterproductive.

How come?

For the moment, there is a draft action plan. Turkey is demanding approximately 3 billion euros, and the EU wants to give 1 million of that from IPA [instrument for pre-accession] funds. Turkey has rightfully demanded that this money be given as a supplement to the IPA funds, because the IPA is an instrument for accession. Cooperation on the refugee issue has nothing to do with Turkey’s accession process. Turkey needs that money for the preparations for its accession. There is this issue on the table.

Currently, what is expected is that the EU will open certain chapters in exchange for Turkey’s cooperation on the refugee issue. Maybe Chapter 17 (economic and monetary policy) can be opened since the decision about it was taken before. But as I said previously, opening chapters necessitates unanimous votes, and if this does not occur, imagine how the public in Turkey will react. People will say, “Turkey is doing its utmost on the refugee issue, but the EU is not fulfilling its commitments.”

The same could be true for visa liberalization. This issue cannot be tied only to Turkey’s cooperation on the refugee crisis. Turkey has to implement the readmission agreement. That agreement has very difficult conditions to be implemented. The Interior Ministry is doing its utmost to fulfill these conditions, but they say they are facing enormous difficulties. 

There is again an action plan for visa liberalization as well, and there are some tough conditions there, too, like promulgating personal data protection, for instance. Even if Turkey fulfills all its commitments on visa liberalization, the final decisions are to be given by member states – this time by a qualified majority, but it has to be approved by the absolute majority of the European Parliament. 

What happens if Turkey cooperates very efficiently on the refugee crisis but visa liberalization does not materialize? Then Turkish public opinion will be totally against the EU because they are not aware of the separate commitments for visa liberalization. They will say, “Look we are cooperating on the Syrian refugee crisis; we are doing our utmost to keep them here, but visa liberalization has not materialized.” This will be counterproductive for the EU’s image in the country.

You are basing your view on the assumption that an EU country can veto all this. But the Turkish government probably thinks this will not happen since its cooperation is needed for the refugee crisis.

Hopefully that will be the case, but I doubt that. There are different points of view regarding the refugee crisis in the EU. Some member states could be against cooperation with Turkey. The draft action plan foresees that the EU will also take in some refugees, but some member states could be against this scheme.

We have heard some awful statements coming from EU leaders like all Muslims are attacking Christian values.

So how do you see Europe’s attitude in all this?

I find it very hypocritical. Actually, both sides pretend that there is an accession process. It is like you have a patient in a comatose state but you do not want to pull the plug because it will be detrimental. The EU would like to see Turkey as an important strategic partner, not as an accession partner.

Who is Nilgün Arısan Eralp?

Refugee crisis could revitalize EU ties but not accession talks

A graduate of Middle East Technical University (ODTÜ), Nilgün Arısan Eralp worked as an adviser from 1987 to 1996 in several senior public authorities including the Ministry of State for EU Affairs, the Deputy Prime Ministry and the Prime Ministry of Turkey. 

From 1990 to 1992, Eralp worked as an expert in the State Planning Organization and the Directorate General for EU Affairs. In 1996 Eralp coordinated the “Information Network Project for Small- and Medium-Sized Enterprises on Customs Union” jointly financed by the Economic Development Foundation (İKV) and the European Commission. 

Between 1997 and 2000, Eralp acted as the head of the Department of Policies and Harmonization in the Directorate General for the EU Affairs at State Planning Organization. After leaving this position, she worked as the director of the National Program in the Secretariat-General for European Union Affairs (EUSG) until 2009.

She is currently the director of the European Union Institute at the Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey (TEPAV).