* This article has been published by Hurriyet Daily News (with Melih Özsöz).
Relations between Turkey and the European Union have been revitalized unexpectedly by the current migrant crisis, which has served as a wake-up call for the EU on the importance of maintaining dialogue with Turkey. Behind closed doors, Turkish and EU officials have been working on a draft plan for refugees for weeks.
Following President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s visit to Brussels and the warm welcome he received from EU leaders, as well as German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s visit to Turkey, the enlivened EU-Turkey dialogue has become far more prominent. Just two weeks before elections in Turkey and days after the Ankara bombings, the EU has promised a set of gifts in return for Turkey playing a more active role in the migrant crisis – i.e., keeping migrants on Turkish soil.
To be more concrete, all of the following have been on the table: the acceleration of the previously negotiated free movement deal for Turkish citizens within the Schengen Area; the opening of new negotiation chapters on energy, economic and monetary policies, judiciary and fundamental rights, justice, freedoms and security, education and culture, and foreign, security and defense policies; an invitation to EU summits as a candidate country; and new funds that will be used to help tackle the migration crisis, which will not be taken from the EU’s Turkey allowance.
In addition, Brussels and Ankara have agreed to delay the publication of Turkey’s Progress Report until after the elections, once again breaking the routine in Turkey-EU relations. Rumor has it that this has been Turkey’s “secret” request of the EU, since the government did not want to face certain criticism right before critical elections.
The question for the EU, as well as for Turkey, is whether both sides are willing to honestly accelerate membership talks or not. This is a key question that needs to be asked, since Turkey-EU relations and the membership process have been in the making for years, experiencing ups and downs. If the refugee crisis and the EU’s expectations from Turkey can become a firm incentive – not just a shallow promise – for moving ahead with the negotiation talks, this will be a very important development.
Nevertheless, there are important issues related to this deal. In terms of the opening of new chapters on the negotiation process, for instance, five out of six chapters proposed by Turkey have been repeatedly blocked by Cyprus. If the EU, especially Germany, can pressure Cyprus into opening the blocked chapters, this could be a step forward. The positive status of reunification negotiations on the island could facilitate this situation, too.
However, one should remember that both the EU and Turkey have been repeating the possibility of opening some chapters, especially on fundamental rights and justice, over the years due to Turkey’s deteriorating image in Europe.
Another issue is the debate over visa-free travel for Turkish nationals, a problem that was supposed to be resolved by 2017 in its natural course, but which will be resolved a year earlier than anticipated, in the second half of 2016. This has been a very important issue for Turkish citizens for over 30 years, as it has had a very crucial impact, especially for businesspeople and students. For this reason, it should not be used for internal political gain.
The big questions remain unanswered: how do we deal with the migrant crisis? What are the best conditions for the refugees? Who is going to cover the costs? There are some critical aspects of these questions that have not been seen on the surface. One is the impact of refugees on the rise of the extreme right in Europe.
All over Europe, anti-immigrant sentiment has been playing out, and it is becoming a very important issue that might define the future of Europe. For this reason, Turkey-EU relations should be dealt with from a broader perspective.
There have been various criticisms of the timing of Merkel’s visit just before the elections and her “unspoken” support for the governing party, which is facing criticism for its take on basic values such as human rights, minority rights, press freedom and the impartiality of the judiciary process – i.e., the very basis of the Copenhagen criteria. Realpolitik should not be the only decision point for the actions of European leaders.
Europe should provide an impetus for improving basic rights in Turkey and also look for a humanitarian solution for refugees.