Turkey and the EU: consensus or contention?

Turkey is one of the main transit countries of Syrian refugees heading towards Europe. According to Frontex, 630,000 people entered the EU irregularly by the end of September 2015, many of them travelling from Turkey though Greece (271,156). The UNHCR reports that the eastern Mediterranean route (from Turkey into Greece) has now surpassed the central Mediterranean route (from North Africa to Italy) as the main source of maritime arrivals. Hence, for the EU, consolidating its external borders is only viable with the collaboration of the Turkish authorities. “We need Turkey. We cannot do it alone” stated Donald Tusk prior to the meeting with Erdogan. In his talk held during the meeting with EU leaders in Brussels on October 5, the 2015 president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, declared Turkey’s readiness to collaborate with the EU in managing refugee crisis. The recent draft of the Action plan on EU-Turkey cooperation on the support of refugees and migration management (handed over on 5 October 2015 by European Commission President Juncker to the President of the Republic of Turkey Erdoğan) stipulates the role of each side and the steps to be undertaken to fulfil it if accepted. Both sides have agreed to step up their cooperation to address the unprecedented refugee crisis.

Though cooperation between Turkey and the EU is crucial for EU external border management, the way Ankara and Brussels see it is still far from the consensus. Turkey proposes establishing a “safe zones” — which is to say, protected areas on Syrian territory along the Turkish border where refugees can be hosted. The creation of a safe zone has long been a priority for Turkey as it would stop the flow of refugees before entering Turkish territory and, hence, combat the smuggling network in Turkey. In his speech President Erdoğan claimed that “the root cause of the refugee crisis today is the war in Syria” and urged the EU to do three things to end the crisis: “One is to focus on training and equipment, the second one is to declare a safe zone that would be protected from terrorism, and the third is a no-fly zone”.

European leaders hold a reluctant position on the creation of “safe zones” proposed by Ankara. Instead, Europe tries to convince Turkey to accept the “hotspots” strategy— the creation of facilities (six new camps with two million refuges capacity) on the Turkish territory where asylum applications could be handled. According to the current version of the Draft Action plan the EU intends to mobilise up to €1bn for the period 2015-16 to support Turkey in coping with the present refugee crisis through the adoption of measures enabling refugees to access the labour market and public services (including education for pupils and access to health services) for the duration of their stay in Turkey. EU funding “should be also used to enable refugees in need to settle in appropriate accommodations by facilitating their access to available shelters and building new ones. The priority will be given to the opening of the six refugee reception centres built with the EU co-funding”. The document also specifies the possibility of applying the existing EU resettlement schemes and programmes, which could enable refugees in Turkey to enter the EU in an orderly manner. One of the key points of the Draft Action plan is strengthening the cooperation between boarder-control authorities (in particular Hellenic Coast Guard and Turkish Coast Guard). If the Action plan is accepted as it is Turkey should “step up and accelerate procedures to smoothly readmit irregular migrants who are not in need of international protection and were intercepted by Romanian, Greek or Bulgarian authorities, coming from the Turkish territory in line with the established readmission obligations”. Migrants picked up while crossing the Mediterranean Sea from Turkey towards EU territory would be sent back to Turkey. For this purpose, additional points for handing over irregular migrants intercepted in the Aegean Sea would be opened near one of the Greek islands. However, the acceptance of EU proposed strategy by Turkey might come at a price. Turkey might expect the EU to commit to taking in half a million more refugees, or to lift visa requirements for Turkish citizens.