The Cable

Did Turkey Just Kill the Refugee Deal With Europe?

If they did, it has more to do with EU-Turkish relations than with refugees.


On Monday night, Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus said that the European Union had not kept up its side of a deal whereby Turkey worked to help halt the flood of Syrian refugees into Europe, in exchange for aid and a shot at visa-free travel. He reportedly said that means the deal is dead.

The spat has a little to do with refugees and a lot to do with Turkey’s troubled relationship with Europe. More broadly, this speaks to Turkish frustrations with the EU — and with domestic political concerns ahead of a big April referendum to expand the powers of the Turkish president.

“The deal was dead from day one,” David Phillips, director of Columbia University’s Program on Peace-building and Rights and author of An Uncertain Ally: Turkey Under Erdogan’s Dictatorship, told Foreign Policy, because the EU never intended to implement visa-free travel.

“Turkey’s candidacy for the EU was never a realistic prospect given European attitudes towards Turkey. The European Parliament suspended negotiations in response to Turkey’s egregious human rights abuses after the failed coup of July 15. There is zero chance of this turning around in the near term. No chance of singing kumbaya with Erdogan,” Phillips said.

Last March, a deal between the European Union and Turkey concerning refugees came into effect. Essentially, it said that “irregular migrants” who came to Greece from Turkey would be sent back. For every Syrian refugee returned to Turkey, a Syrian would be resettled from Turkey into the European Union. The deal also promised renewed talks on Turkish accession to EU; visa liberalization provided certain conditions were met by Turkey; and a substantial aid package from the EU to Turkey.

The deal may not be over just yet. Sinan Ülgen, a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe, pointed out that Turkey would also lose leverage by pulling out of the deal — and gain virtually nothing in return. “There’s no decision yet on the Turkish side,” Ülgen said.

But if Turkey does make good on its threat to end the deal, what does that mean for refugee flows? It’s not entirely clear. Turkey did stop, or at least slow down, the flow of migrants from Turkey to nearby Greek islands, said Jeff Rathke of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. But refugee numbers were shrinking, anyway, since migrants couldn’t advance farther than Greece, thanks to the closure of the Balkan route.

“Times have changed significantly,” Rathke said. “Even if you had massive numbers going to Greece right now, they wouldn’t be able to go further.”

Ian Lesser of the German Marshall Fund noted that Turkey, too, would feel the impact of the end of the deal, since it would also mean the end of billions of euros in aid to Turkey. But he also said that Kurtulmus may simply have been restating a long-held Turkish position. If he was saying that the deal will die if there’s no movement on visa liberalization, “this is really just a restatement of a view Ankara has held for some time.”

But this isn’t just a matter of putting diplomatic pressure on the EU. It’s also meant to drum up Turkish nationalism and patriotism ahead of the April referendum intended to increase the powers of the president — a referendum for which Turkey has been trying to campaign in the Netherlands and Germany, where authorities have withheld permits for rallies (and where general elections will be held tomorrow and in September, respectively).

“The focus inside Turkey is all on the upcoming referendum. And so you’ve got to look at it in that context,” Rathke said. Even after the referendum, Turkey and the EU will remain at loggerheads.

“It’s very difficult to fix that, even if the rhetoric can be cooled down,” Lesser said.

That is bad news for already dicey Turkish-EU relations. And it’s not great for the fate of refugees. But the refugee deal was only dealing with a symptom, not the underlying problem, Phillips said.

“It never addressed the root cause of the problem, which is the ongoing conflict in Syria. Until the EU and U.S. are willing to address that,” he added, “that problem is going to be ongoing.”

Photo credit:  ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images

Emily Tamkin is the U.S. editor of the New Statesman and the author of The Influence of Soros, published July 2020. Twitter: @emilyctamkin

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