Stern-faced EU leaders could not hide their dilemma when dealing with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. On the one hand, they need to be diplomatic. On the other, they need to be brutally honest with a thin-skinned Erdogan who does not cope well with criticism.
EU officials walked a fine line during their recent meetings with the Turkish president, asking him to respect the terms of a previous deal to keep migrants away from Europe’s borders, after the Turkish leader came to Brussels to demand more support, which the EU leaders said they would consider.
There was no disguising the tension at the European Council after the talks, with Erdogan choosing to head straight for the airport rather than appear at a news conference with European Commission head Ursula von der Leyen and EU Council President Charles Michel.
Turkey, which is threatening the EU with a new wave of illegal migration, hosts more than 3.5 million Syrian refugees, and Erdogan has demanded that Europe shoulder more of the burden of caring for them.
He also accused the EU of not meeting its obligations under the abovementioned 2016 agreement, including failing to pay money promised to Turkey to stem the flow of migrants to Europe.
The EU says it is disbursing the funds, but also accused Erdogan of “blackmail” for waving migrants through to Europe late last month after dozens of Turkish soldiers were killed in fighting in northern Syria.
EU countries have rallied behind Greece, which is also a member of NATO, and described it as a “shield” protecting Europe’s borders with the outside world. Tens of thousands of migrants were already in Greece before Turkey announced its borders would open, many of them in massively overcrowded camps on Greek islands facing the Turkish coast.
Erdogan, who has accused the EU of a lack of solidarity with his military operations in Syria, and claims the true cost of housing refugees has been close to 40 billion Euros, announced last week that he would be “opening the doors” for refugees fleeing Idlib province, the final rebel stronghold in Syria. The EU still has nightmares about the mismanaged chaos of the 2015 influx of migrants and refugees, and Erdogan’s warning has done more than revive those fears. It has unmasked Europe’s failure to create a coherent migration or asylum policy.
“Clearly, we do have our disagreements, but we have spoken plainly, and we have spoken openly to each other,” Von der Leyen told reporters after talks with the Turkish president. She added that during the talks with Erdogan “there was a clear focus on, ‘Let’s discuss what is fact. Let’s sort out how both sides see the past and how we evaluate the EU-Turkey statement.’”
Von der Leyen was brutally frank, accusing Erdogan of politicising the border to extract concessions from Brussels, and insisted that a “future-proof” solution should be found to avoid a repeat of recent violent scenes.
“The events at the Greek-Turkish border clearly point to politically motivated pressure on the EU’s external border,” she said. “Finding a solution to this situation will require relieving the pressure that is put on the border.”
To defuse tensions, the European Union and Turkey agreed to review a four-year-old deal on managing migrants and refugees in an effort to settle a dispute that sent thousands of people to the Turkey-Greece border in hopes of reaching Europe, top EU officials said Monday.
Under the 2016 agreement, the EU offered that Ankara block migrants and refugees from heading to Greece in exchange for 6 billion Euros ($6.7 billion) plus other incentives to stop Europe-bound migrants. The number arriving in Greece from Turkey dropped dramatically after the deal took effect.
Von der Leyen and Michel both stressed that the 2016 deal between the EU and Turkey “remains valid”. After talks with Erdogan in Brussels Monday, Michel said that the top EU diplomat, Josep Borrell, would be working with his Turkish counterpart, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, in the next few days “to be certain that we are on the same page that we have the same interpretation about what we do, in Turkey and at the level of the European Union, in order to implement the deal”.
A Turkish presidential source said only, “the meeting at the EU was productive.”
Erdogan had made clear that his priority was to seek more support for his country in the conflict in Syria and to cope with millions of refugees from the fighting.
Before heading to the European Council, he held talks with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, and told him bluntly: “NATO is in a critical process in which it needs to clearly show its alliance solidarity.”
“Our allies should display their solidarity with our country without discrimination and without laying down political conditions,” he said. “It is very important that the support we demand is met without any further delay.”
Erdogan also appeared annoyed that — rather than listening to his concerns — Von der Leyen and Michel backed Greece as Europe’s “shield” against migrants encouraged to leave Turkey.
And he had harsh words for Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis’ Greek government, which has already been allocated 700 million Euros ($800 million) by Brussels to secure Greek borders and cope with the new arrivals.
“It is irrational and inconsiderate that an ally and a neighbouring country point to Turkey as responsible for the irregular migration,” Erdogan said.
“We will not allow this country to try to get unfair gains by using its current position,” he added.
Mitsotakis did not take such talk lying down, responding furiously in an address to the German Council on Foreign Relations: “Why do we spend so much on defence? It’s because our neighbour is Turkey and not Denmark.” He added: “As prime minister of Greece, I don’t have to listen to lessons on human rights from Turkey.”
Tens of thousands of asylum seekers have been trying to break through the land border from Turkey for a week after Ankara announced it would no longer prevent people from trying to cross into the EU.
On Friday, Erdogan ordered the Turkish coastguard to prevent risky Aegean Sea crossings after more than 1,700 migrants landed on Lesbos and four other Aegean islands. But Turkey’s policy of allowing migrants and refugees to leave by land remains in place.
For now, the European Union may satisfy Erdogan with more financial aid, but playing with the refugees card, over and over again, is what worries the EU in the long run.
For many EU leaders, a political solution to the Syrian crisis is what really needed, to end the refugee crisis and stop Erdogan’s blackmail.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 12 March, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly