- Area of Expertise
Since March 2016, Brussels has been on notice. That was the date Europe made its ‘dirty’ migration deal with Ankara. Since then, analysts have been warning: by paying Turkey to hold back the wave of refugees from Syria, Brussels has submitted to an Ottoman protection racket. And all because the European Union was unwilling to meet its humanitarian obligations and accept refugees, or intervene in the conflict in Syria.
The Turkish government has sporadically given weight to these fears, making threats to ‘open the floodgates’ to Syria. It wanted more money, better recognition for its humanitarian efforts, and European visas – at least for those of its citizens it trusts to leave the country. Until now, its threats have been idle. But in March, Ankara did suspend the deal. It seems Turkey wanted a means to press its NATO allies to take sides against Russia in Syria.
Three months on, the situation at the Greek border appears to have stabilised, but not in a very permanent way: migrants have been prevented from moving across Turkey due to the coronavirus lockdown. When Turkey’s restrictions on free movement ease, all the EU’s old vulnerabilities will resurface. So what are the lessons from the last four years? There are seven of them. And together they amount to a simple message: that Europe’s fears about Turkey are largely self-fulfilling.
We in Europe still have too high an opinion of ourselves
First lesson: migration can indeed be a tool of war and power politics. Turkey – like Sudan or Iran or Russia – uses migration to improve its strategic situation. Typical aims include expanding its territory, perhaps by using concerns about migration to create safe-zones, like in north-east Syria. They use migration flows to engineer a better domestic demographic situation for themselves, diluting ethnic strongholds or pushing out minorities. And they use it to discredit rivals and to destabilise them.
Second, we over-estimate the ability of these countries to instrumentalise migration. Turkey is just making the best of the very bad situation resulting from its own miscalculations in Syria. And it suffers each time it opens the border. Take the ‘Caravan of Hope’ incident in March last year. A rumour went out that Ankara was going to lift restrictions at its borders. 50,000 Syrians and Afghans moved northwards towards Greece. But an estimated one million Syrians began moving towards Atimah, just outside Aleppo, hoping to get into Turkey.
Third, Turkey tends to over-estimate Europe’s strategic genius too, or at least our Machiavellian instincts. Officials in Ankara accuse Brussels of double standards, “You say we weaponise migration; take a look in the mirror”. They point to 2015-16 and what they see as classic destabilisation operations by the Europeans. Europeans had set up naval operations to block the flow of people across the Aegean and the Central Mediterranean. Turks say that these triggered a wave of refugees into Turkey, and that the EU must have been able to foresee this.
Fourth, Europe’s defensive posture means we lay ourselves open to such accusations. Those naval operations did lead to destabilisation in Turkey. Middle-class Syrians had been crossing the Central Mediterranean to Europe. But in 2015, smugglers in Libya responded to the naval operation with a new business model: they targeted African migrants, putting them to sea in big unsafe boats and a promise of rescue. Syrians now rerouted through Turkey, and found their path to Europe blocked by a naval operation in the Aegean.
Fifth, we in Europe still have too high an opinion of ourselves. Not every migrant or refugee wants to come ‘flooding’ into the EU. We saw this when trying to replicate the EU-Turkey deal with states across Africa: Brussels offered their citizens better access to the EU in return for holding back refugee flows. They weren’t interested: get us access to the Gulf or Asia or America, they said. Turkey needs only to keep a small trickle of migrants into the overcrowded European refugee camps to keep the pressure on.
Brussels has far more hold over Turkey than we usually assume
Sixth, we have too low an opinion of others. Turkey still cares about how it is perceived. Turkey’s diplomats have worked hard on its humanitarian reputation, and this is damaged whenever Ankara appears to encourage Muslims to drown in the Aegean. Turkey’s coastguards care about the duty to preserve life at sea and resent the criticism they receive in the international media. Turkey’s businesses care about their access to neighbouring markets, and fear Turkish Airlines closing down their new regional hubs if faced with transit flows to Europe.
And last: Turkey and Europe still have more in common than that which separates them. In Turkey’s cities, the middle-class populations have long been pro-European. But if Erdoğan is now happy to alienate them it is because they have already been alienated by the EU’s handling of the migration crisis. In the final analysis, Turkey and the EU are just harming each other. When Turkey opened the border in March, it ultimately strengthens not Turkey’s hand over the EU, but Russia’s hand over both of them. Russia is the one displacing people in Syria, and in Libya.
At the very least, this all means that Brussels has far more hold over Turkey than we usually assume. At most, it also means that there is scope to cooperate. Those analysts who play up the idea that Turkey is running an Ottoman protection racket may think they are being sophisticated, but their warnings only give Turkey a hold over Europe, play up our vulnerabilities, and ultimately come true.
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