It is a truism to state that the relationship between Turkey and the European Union (EU) is currently stuck at one of the lowest points of its decades-long history. Gone are the optimistic days when Turks had overwhelmingly supported the country’s EU-bid and their European counterparts appeared relatively warmed up to the idea as the membership negotiations formally opened in 2005. Nowadays, just two-fifth of Turkish citizens view the EU favourably and only one-third support the membership or even believe that the country will ever become a member. Europeans, on the other hand, had never been as opposed to Turkish accession as they are now: 83% of French, 72% of Germans, 68% of Belgians and 66% of Brits do not want the country to join the union. Both parties seem to agree that the difference between them are simply irreconcilable. Correspondingly, after eleven years, only one of 35 chapters has been agreed upon and negotiations for membership remain practically frozen.
Notwithstanding all these discouraging trends, there is also the fact that neither parties are willing to abandon the process altogether. Despite the inflammatory anti-EU rhetoric of Erdogan government or increasingly more critical tone of the EU officials vis-a-vis Turkey, the doors between Brussels and Ankara remain open. After all, the EU is still the biggest market for Turkish exports and Turkey has a unique geostrategic significance for Europe’s energy and political security. And this is precisely the reason why some remain optimistic about the prospects of EU-Turkey relations. They believe that the top issue on the agenda, the deal on Syrian refugees, has the potential to “re-energize” the relations since it obliges parties to cooperate for a mutually beneficial solution to a pressing problem. They expect this rapprochement to have a spillover effect over other areas as well, resulting at least in the formation of a “special partnership” in the long run.
Given the improbability of full membership being granted to Turkey in foreseeable future, this could be a realistically optimist scenario – if not for the highly problematic nature of the refugee deal itself. Contrary to the joint effort to serve it as a “win-win” solution, as it stands, the deal is more likely to result in a situation where both parties lose.
Turkey, for its part, will keep on being the largest refugee-hosting country in the world, with almost 3 million in total. Having already spent more than $16 billion on Syrian refugees, Turkey lacks even the basic infrastructural and legal capacities to safely host, let alone integrate those millions, whose daily lives consist little more than misery, abuse and exploitation. As the economic prospects of Turkey get darker and political instability is rampant, the country also faces a dangerously rising tide of anti-Syrian sentiments that could further destabilize this already volatile society.
For the EU, on the other hand, the loss is equally significant. President Tusk met Erdogan on the day Turkish state seized a media group over “terrorism” charges. The ink was barely dry on the agreement when Erdogan defiantly declared: ‘Democracy, freedom and the rule of law…For us, these words have absolutely no value any longer.’ Cutting a deal with a partner so completely and defiantly opposed to what the EU purports to be standing for tarnishes its already diminished status as a normative power. It gives the signal that the EU’s normative rhetoric is just that, a rhetoric.
The deal also blatantly violates the EU legislation. For the EU to reject and return asylum-seekers to Turkey, it has to be recognized either as a safe third country or a first country of asylum. In both cases, minimum requirement is that the applicant is recognized as a refugee and benefits from non-refoulement. As examined in AIDA report, Turkey does not recognize Syrians as refugees, granting them no access to refugee protection as preserved in Geneva Convention. There are also several reports on Syrians in Turkey being subject to deportation or push-back to south of the border, indicating that Turkish government does not abide by the principles of non-refoulementa.
Nevertheless, the EU still faces a vital decision vis-a-vis Turkey: to keep those door open or not? Increasingly authoritarian tendencies of Turkish government seem to have stepped up yet another gear in the aftermath of July 15th coup attempt, criminalizing opposition in all forms and leaving dangerously little room for “others” to exist. Thus, for the survival of democracy in Turkey, there needs to be some minimal breathing space left for the opposition to survive and, today, this is under threat. Europe has always been a lighthouse for Turkey when the ship struggles on troubled waters, giving direction and hope to many of those on board. So, it would be best if that light is kept on. This can be done by showing determination to use whatever tools available to ensure the survival of opposition in Turkey. The EU has already been accused by Turkish government of being “supporters” of putschists for not backing the post-coup purges as much as desired. This indicates that remaining an impartial observer of a society that is so ultimately polarized is a fading possibility. So it is quite likely that Europe may be forced to choose a side in near future.