Turkey-EU relations “history” dates back to 1963 when, based on the Ankara Agreement, Turkey became an associate member of the EEC (European Economic Community). It was officially recognized as a candidate for full membership on 12 December 1999. Although negotiations started in 2005 and the government from Ankara took pains in completing those 35 Chapters imposed in order to be able to join EU, Turkey still keeps its status of “candidate”. On the one hand, negotiation dialogue has been seen by Turkish authorities as an unbalanced diplomatic dialogue, dense and many times contested; but, on the other hand, in time Turks became very sceptical about any chance to join EU. Thus, for now the future trajectory of Turkey-EU relationship remains very uncertain. But, due to recent events like the refugee crisis, Turkey-EU dialogue has taken new shapes.
Throughout history the European Union has been facing refugee flows from different geographical areas, mainly from North Africa and Middle East. But because of the blood spilling war that started in 2011 in Syria and seems to be endless, the biggest flow of refugees to Europe nowadays are Syrians, coming from Middle East through Turkey. The number of people fleeing the civil war in Syria has now almost five million. More than 3 million Syrian refugees are now on Turkish territory, many of them hoping to escape and reach Europe, while many others hoping that in the nearest future war will come to an end and they will be able to return to their country. The Aegean Sea became a “bloody” sea since dozens of boats with hundreds of people on them capsized. Eastern Mediterranean represents the route taken by thousands of refugees striving to reach Greek territory from where, passing through Balkans, they will be able to reach countries like Austria, Hungary, Germany etc.
Being a major transit country for migrants or asylum-seekers from the Middle East and Asia, Turkey plays an important role on the international arena. At the moment Turkey hosts more than 3 million Syrian refugees and this number is constantly increasing. The main aim of the vast majority of refugees passing through Turkey is to reach the more developed European countries. After hundreds of people losing their lives in the Mediterranean and mainly in the Aegean Sea, in November 2015 European authorities have started to negotiate an agreement with Turkey which includes a significant aid for the country. While the European Commission offered €1 billion, Turkey asked for €3 billion in order to improve the living conditions of Syrian refugees, restrict border crossing and ensure tougher control on Turkish borders. By offering this aid to Turkey, the European Union hopes that the number of new-comers to Europe will decrease. Some voices accused Turkey of blackmailing the European Union on its possibly faster accession to the organization and visa liberalization, others had seen this €3 billion aid as a European “bribe” to Turkey. For example, Ankara might have threatened the EU of opening its borders to buses carrying refugees if the EU didn’t link the refugee crisis to Turkey’s accession to the EU. Also, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was asking for €3 billion per one year, while the EU was offering this amount of money for a two-year period. At this regard, Erdoğan brought up the example of Greece, claiming that within the economic crisis Greece received €400 billion from the European Union, while Turkey would receive only €3 billion to deal with the refugee crisis. Erdoğan was told by European authorities not to compare the Greek economic crisis with the refugee crisis. However, many in Turkey accused the European Union on its unrealistic plan, and invoked Turkey’s problems in the education system, employment and social security.
In Turkey, Republican People’s Party (CHP) head Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu has defined the plan between Ankara and EU as a “bribe”, pointing at German Chancellor Merkel because of her saying “Let Syrians stay in Turkey. We will give you money if you keep them there” (Başaran, 2015). The EU and Turkey reached the agreement on 18th of March 2016 outlining the relocation to Turkey of the migrants who came to Greece via Turkey, so that the EU will accept only a certain number of migrants. This state of affairs will disengage member states from assuming any responsibilities or taking any tough decisions that would deliver a real solution to the problem. By claiming that war refugees should stay in the country closest to their own, European authorities are presenting Turkey as the country which holds the solution to the migration crisis. Nevertheless, the EU does not want to admit that Turkey might become the country of refugee camps, because there is no clear answer as to when the conflict in Syria will get to its end and all refugees will be able to return home.
In the meantime, refugees are supposed to stay in Turkey and benefit from European aid in terms of schooling and medical care projects. Former Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu stated that Turkey cannot deal alone with this humanitarian crisis. The EU has to help Turkey and now is not the right moment to make a “Christian fortress” out of Europe, referring to some European countries’ religious euro-scepticism.
While Turkey occupies an important position within the European response to the refugee crisis, many Gulf countries were not involved at all, because they are not legally obliged to take or provide asylum to any refugees. Persian Gulf states haven’t participated in the 1951 United Nations treaty, thus legally they are exempt from accepting refugees in their countries. Up to this moment, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain accepted zero refugees, and only the United Arab Emirates accepted 250.000 refugees (Martinez, 2015). Even if these countries share the same religion, beliefs and culture, this wasn’t a strong enough moral clause for Gulf countries to accept refugees and provide them with shelter. Generally speaking, it is true that the economic migrants are looking to reach mainly European countries, but talking about war refugees – these people are only looking for a safe place, where there is no violence and minimum hope for a better life. Frankly said, in the midst of the refugee crisis some of the European and Gulf countries took off their masks and became lethargic to human solidarity, human values and morality.
The truth is that countries like Turkey, Jordan or Lebanon are facing the real humanitarian crisis. At the moment, these are the countries hosting the overwhelming majority of the displaced people from the Middle East. The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reports that Jordan is ranked second in the world for the number of refugees (90) per 1,000 inhabitants. The top country is Lebanon, with a staggering 209.
Lately, the European Union succeeded to raise up tidal waves in the aforementioned countries. Accusing the United Nations and the European Union of hypocrisy over the Syrian refugees issue, Turkish authorities reconfirmed their openness regarding refugees. Turkey is a candidate to EU full membership and still has a long way to go in order to achieve the standards imposed and asked by the EU, but when we speak about morality and human values, there are many aspects to analyse in terms of who is more “European” and who is not. Speaking at the Donors Conference for Syrian Refugees “Supporting Syria and the Region” on January, 26 2016, former Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu declared that “Our heart is bigger than our budget”. We must admit, this is a strong message and at the same time it is a part of Turkish international rhetoric, but it is also an incentive mainly for European countries, where it can be clearly seen that budget is all that matters. Of course money is important, especially in such situations like the refugee crisis, but more important is the common partnership among members of the international community, and a shared view on how to solve this issue.
Lately been the victim of abominable bomb attacks like those in Paris and Brussels, the European Union is trying to re-evaluate its fighting strategy against terrorism. Although many of the attackers were European-born citizens, this did not stop Europeans from believing that the influx of refugees has led to an increase on the likelihood of terrorism across the European continent. Also, it is believed that Daesh is using the refugee crisis to infiltrate its militants. In the aftermath of the bombing attacks in Europe, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center, European countries seem to be very concerned about the terror threat, stating that refugees will become an economic burden and will take away their jobs and social benefits (Yeoung, 2016). Notwithstanding, only in 2016 Turkey has been rocked by at least 10 terrorist attacks, most of them taking place in the capital city of Ankara, Istanbul and in the South Eastern city of Diyarbakir. Some of these attacks were backed by Daesh, others by the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party), old enemy of the Turkish government.
On July, 15 a military coup was attempted in Turkey. Immediately after the failed coup, discussions about re-introducing death penalty affected negatively the dialogue between Turkey and EU. The European Union’s foreign policy chief stated that “No country can become an EU member state if it introduces death penalty”. Also, in 2016 Turkey experienced the sanctions imposed by Russia in the wake of shooting down a Russian jet. All these events inevitably weakened the Turkish state from within. Turkey’s busy political agenda was meant to tilt up all public sectors, including of course the citizens’ welfare first of all. Because of the overwhelming events that hit Turkish society and because of uncontrollable anger, hate speech picked on social media in Turkey through a campaign with the trending hashtag #ÜlkemdeSuriyeliIstemiyorum (I do not want Syrians in my country). Also, many cases of physical violence against Syrian refugees were registered.
Whereas diplomatic negotiations, dialogue, sometimes accusations between Turkey and the European Union moves to and fro, the humanitarian crisis heightens. The number of news about refugees fleeing Syria or African countries and the number of human tragedies constantly increases. Behind politics and international relations there are human losses happening. The magnitude of this humanitarian disaster requires the intensification of efforts of both Turkey and the EU and sharing the burden of the crisis, otherwise the “human bomb” which the media generally are overstating might bring some new afflictive challenges to all actors involved in this process.
PhD candidate, Marmara University (Turkey),
Faculty of Communications, Journalism
Başaran, Rifat (2015) CHP leader says Merkel offered Turkey a “bribe” from EU, Daily News, retrieved from bit.ly/2chgDo6.
Martinez, Michael (2015) Syrian refugees: Which countries welcome them, which ones doesn’t, CNN, retrieved from cnn.it/1VTT1o9.
Yeoung, Peter (2016) Refugee crisis: Majority of Europeans believe increased migration raises terror threat, survey says, The Independent, retrieved from ind.pn/29LTFnJ.