Why the EU should accept Ankara’s demands

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Refugees arrive at Lesbos, after crossing the Aegean from Turkey. [Jordi Bernabeu Farrús/Flickr]

The EU-Turkey deal has been painted by some as a step backward for European values, but in the long run, adopting the deal would benefit not only the EU and Ankara, but the refugee as well, argues Alexander Bürgin.

Alexander Bürgin is Jean Monnet Chair and Associate Professor at Izmir University of Economics, Turkey.

At the EU-Turkey summit on 7 March, the Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu surprised the EU member states with a plan that commits Turkey to readmitting all migrants crossing into the Greek islands from its territory.

In return, Ankara raised four demands. First, for every Syrian readmitted by Turkey from Greek islands, another Syrian refugee in Turkey should be resettled in the EU member states. Second, the EU should double the €3 billion offered as financial support. Third, the visa obligation for Turkish citizens should be abolished in the near future, and finally, new accession chapters should be opened.

The EU would be advised to accept these demands, because no sustainable alternative to resolving the refugee crisis is in sight. In addition, while some argue that upgrading Turkey’s relationship with the EU is undeserved due to Ankara’s increasing deviation from the EU’s political values, a revitalisation of the accession process could have the effect of increasing the EU’s influence on domestic politics in Turkey.

Despite these advantages, the reactions of the member states to the plan were ambivalent. While German chancellor Angela Merkel offered support, other governments oppose it for three main reasons. First, several governments are unwilling to host any additional refugees, and are thus against the idea of any further resettlement in their countries. However, if there is a clear message that no one crossing the Aegean Sea illegally will have the opportunity to remain in EU, then it is highly probable that all but a very few will be discouraged from taking  this risky route. As a consequence, very few of Syrian refugees currently in camps in Turkey are expected to be resettled in the EU.

Thus, for those refugees hoping for shelter in the EU, the implementation of this plan would come as bad news. Nevertheless, it is both possible and desirable that, independently from this plan, the EU should show a commitment to resettling further refugees from Turkey. But in order to address the concerns of the growing number of EU citizens who oppose significant numbers of immigrants in their countries, in most cases, only temporary residence permits should be granted, obliging a return to Syria if normal life becomes possible again. Such a step could curb the success of anti-immigration parties across the EU, most recently illustrated by the success of the populist right-wing party Alternative for Germany, which gained between 12.6% and 24.2% in three state elections in Germany, while Merkel’s CDU lost support among voters.

The abolition of the visa requirement is another concern for some EU member states. They worry that many Turkish visitors will settle permanently, ignoring the maximum stay of 90 days in a 180-day period. In addition, based on the earlier experience with the Balkan countries, member states should also expect a rise in unfounded asylum requests, once the visa requirement is abolished. But the first concern could be addressed by the introduction of an EU-wide entry/exist system, which would allow for overstayers to be more easily detected. They could then be sanctioned with long-term entry bans. The second concern could be eased by the more efficient processing of asylum requests, obliging those with unfounded claims to be immediately returned to Turkey. Furthermore, the visa liberalisation would have economic advantages for the EU, with an increase in Turkish tourists and improved business relations.

The final argument of several politicians and commentators against the plan is that upgrading Turkey’s relationship with the EU by opening new negotiation chapters is inappropriate due to Ankara’s deviation from the EU’s political values. Yet, while the EU has lost its leverage on Turkish domestic politics in recent years, the opening of new negotiation chapters dealing with sensitive issues such as the freedom of press or the independence of the judiciary would bring the EU a renewed influence on Turkish domestic politics. So the opening of new chapters cannot be said to represent a retreat by the EU on political standards. Such a revitalisation of the EU-Turkey dialogue could also have a positive influence on Turkey’s Kurdish issue. The most recent bomb attack in Ankara, which killed at least 37 people and wounded more than 100, and for which the Turkish government holds the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) responsible, once more sadly illustrated that this decades-old conflict with the PKK cannot be solved by military means alone.

Another EU summit on 17-18 March will decide whether Davutoğlu’s suggested plan will be adopted. A deal would be beneficial for both sides, the EU and Turkey. In addition, at least a significant number of refugees could improve their situation due to better standards and more rights in Turkey and a legal option to reach the EU.

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