As European Union leaders met in Brussels on Thursday for their final summit of the year, one topic was likely at the forefront of discussions: What to do about Turkey?
Relations with the bloc’s powerful Eurasian neighbor, which has long sought to become the first majority-Muslim country to join the union, have sunk to a new low at a time when cooperation has never been more critical. A bitter standoff is developing between Ankara and Brussels, throwing the hard-fought refugee deal between the parties into a state of uncertainty.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has threatened to cancel the agreement if European leaders don’t follow through on a pledge to allow visa-free travel into Europe’s Schengen zone for Turkish nationals. And on Thursday he continued his tough talk, saying Turkey would have back-up plans in the event the long-stalled deal falls apart.
But European politicians say the visa liberalization can’t take place until Turkey meets a number of democratic “benchmarks” — including rewriting anti-terror laws — and have threatened to stall EU accession talks in protest of Erdoğan’s authoritarian post-coup crackdown.
“The EU-Turkey relationship is increasingly fickle, challenging, and it’s only heading south,” said Fadi Hakura, an analyst at Chatham House, a U.K.-based think tank.
“We’re seeing the language of cooperation and coexistence increasingly being replaced by aggressive, robust rhetoric by both sides. There are growing frustrations, miscommunication and mistrust.”
The European Parliament has threatened to freeze EU accession talks with Turkey
EU leaders are meeting just weeks after the European Parliament overwhelmingly voted in favor of a nonbinding resolution to freeze negotiations with Turkey on joining the 28-member union, a process that began in 2005.
The largely symbolic resolution was passed to protest what it described as Ankara’s “disproportionate repressive measures” following July’s failed coup attempt. Erdoğan has launched a wide-ranging and ever-growing crackdown on perceived enemies of the state, leading to the detention of more than 36,000 people.
The move drew a furious response from Turkey’s president, who threatened to unleash a flood of illegal migrants across Europe’s borders in retaliation.
“If you go any further, these border gates will be opened,” he said in a speech in late November. “Do not forget: The West needs Turkey.”
The breakthrough migration deal is yet to be fully implemented
Hanging in the balance is the landmark deal struck between Brussels and Ankara in March, which has helped to turn off the tap on surging migration from Turkey, a major transit point for African and Middle Eastern refugees and migrants, into the EU.
The deal has drastically cut migration along the major Eastern Mediterranean route from Turkey to Greece. While 885,000 people used the route in 2015, only 180,000 did so in the first 11 months of this year, according to Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency.
The core tenets of the deal came into effect in March, leading to a marked reduction in the numbers of migrants crossing into Greece, in return for €3 billion from the EU toward Turkey’s costs of caring for the nearly 3 million registered refugees on its soil.
Visaless travel for Turks for up to 90 days in the Schengen zone was supposed to have been introduced by June. But the measure has stalled as Turkey has failed to meet all of the 72 “benchmarks” specified by the EU for the proposal, most notably the reworking of anti-terror laws, according to an EU official. In response, Erdoğan has stalled on signing off on a readmission agreement that would allow non-Turkish nationals illegally in Europe to be sent back to Turkey.
Talks over the migration deal are in limbo
As a result, the deal now exists “in a sort of stalemate,” said Hakura, kept alive by sheer political will on both sides. “I think the deal will continue in a state of limbo because neither side has any overwhelming interest to rupture it,” he said. “There are too many interlocking interests, from security to economic matters.”
Hakura believes that, unlike when the deal was originally signed, the EU now has the upper hand in the relationship — making sure an improved border and maritime protections are in place to deal with any future influx of migrants. And Turkey is facing economic problems, including a dramatically depreciating currency, that would make preserving an economic relationship with the EU that much more important.
Similarly, the European Parliament’s symbolic but nonbinding resolution to freeze Turkey’s accession negotiations was little more than an expression of frustration at Turkey — and one that merely reflected the true status of the talks, Hakura said.
“In reality, the accession process has been at standstill since negotiations started in 2005,” he said. “The likelihood of Turkey ever joining the EU is extremely remote – I would go so far as to say practically zero.”
The migration deal looks set to be kept alive on similarly flimsy grounds, for a while at least — although Hakura said its prospects do not look healthy in the long term. “Ultimately, this kind of deal cannot be sustained if both sides are at cross-purposes.”