An alliance of civilisations, Vienna global forum, 2013. Wikicommons/Bundesministerium für Europa. Some rights reserved.When politicos start using the word “game-changing” to refer to a negotiation, you can be sure that something truly heinous is going to come out of it, usually in the fine print. This is true of the Trans-Pacific and Trans-Atlantic trade pacts being negotiated, and it is equally true of the deal brokered in Ankara yesterday.
“Details need to be worked out” is another red flag to watch out for as it usually means that the agreement is actually inoperable until some substantial concessions are agreed upon. The “surprise” Turkish proposal – which is surprising to no one that is familiar with the extortion racket – contains both.
In essence, the Davutoglu-Erdogan government has agreed to increase the resources being used to reduce the flow of migrants to Greece, and to take back refugees that actually reach its neighbor. That sounds great, just what the EU and especially Angela Merkel needed. But the devil is in the details:
1. Turkey asks for an additional €3 billion to assist in funding their interdiction efforts. This would be on top of the initial €3 billion Germany offered them late last year, most of which has not been paid yet;
2. Turkey wants the visa liberalization regime for her citizens to be advanced from end of year 2016 to June;
3. They want 5 more chapters opened in Turkish accession talks;
4. In return for this, the Turkish government agrees to take back Syrian refugees, but with a commitment from the EU to take one refugee in return directly from Turkey. Ostensibly, this is to eliminate the for-profit human trafficking aspect and to ensure that all the money goes to Turkey only legitimate, documented refugees are let in.
The executive summary? Turkey has its hands on the spigot and can turn the tap on and off whenever it feels the EU should be made to pay more.
In truth, this was already the situation on the ground; last night’s agreement is merely the formal recognition by Europeans that they are well and truly beholden to Turkey. The deal is unworkable for a number of reasons, which is unfortunate for the European Union and its future prospects:
1. The demands for more money – apparently in €3 billion tranches – are never going to end. That is the definition of an extortion racket. The day the EU attempts to put its foot down is the day Turkey starts bussing refugees to the Greek border and showing them the holes in the fences;
2. Europe has agreed to the visa liberalization regime on the condition that Turkey update its passports to comply with new biometric security norms. I’m not sure how much it actually costs to reissue 80 million passports, but my bet is that it will be €3 billion;
3. Turkish accession talks reek of bad faith on both sides. Mr. Erdogan knows that Europe will never, ever let Turkey join the club – and Europe knows it too. The day Turkey joins the Union is the day that France, Britain, Scandinavia and all of eastern Europe leave it. If the EU cannot accommodate the million Syrian Muslims who reached Europe in 2015, and if it is suffering an identity crisis over the 19 million Muslims residing within the European Union today, how on earth are they going to deal with 80 million Turkish Muslims with Schengen-guaranteed access to the entire continent?
4. The refugee swap program is the most cynical aspect of them all. Turkey will take Syrian refugees back from Europe and exchange them with other Syrian refugees from its camps on a one-for-one basis.
What exactly changes? The European Union still has no workable quota system for taking in refugees; the agreement does nothing about the admittedly smaller number of non-Syrian refugees also trying to get in to Europe; and Turkey must be trusted to process the millions of people suffering in camps along its southern border in some reliable and secure fashion.
Good luck with all that. The only question remaining is whether these refugees will earn frequent flyer miles; if so, they will be flying first class in no time: and all of it paid for by Europe.
This agreement is a failure before it has even been implemented. It is yet another example – if one were needed – of Europe’s elites callously applying “extend-and-pretend” as a patchwork, temporary solution to an unsolvable crisis. Just ask the Greeks about that; how is their economy doing these days?
Erdogan is not doing this just for the money, though that is always a welcome feature. Turkey is legitimately concerned about its security situation and needs European and American help to resolve it. There are three areas where the Turks face grave challenges:
1. Turkey views the Syrian situation as deteriorating from the point of view of their interests. They do not want Bashar al Assad’s government to survive in any form, but their proxies are being pummelled by Russian jets on a daily basis. The Turks want to turn this situation around, but they cannot act unilaterally;
2. Syria also represents a mortal threat to Turkey, insofar as the disintegration of central authority in that country is allowing space for the creation of a Kurdish proto-state called Rojava in northern Syria. Joined with the powerful and semi-autonomous Iraqi Kurds governed out of Erbil, this combination threatens the territorial integrity of Turkey in Anatolia, where large portions of the southeast refer to themselves as “Kurdistan”. That is why the Turkish Army is fighting a low-intensity civil war in Diyarbakir, Şanliurfa, Mardin, Gaziantep and other provinces bordering Syria. It is also why Turkey regularly shells YPG positions across the border, despite them being US-backed allies of the war against the Islamic State;
3. Turkey also fears being isolated at a time when its relationship with Russia has deteriorated so severely. The Russians have occupied Crimea, extended their control in Georgia, are playing off Azerbaijan and Armenia to their own benefit and now have substantial military forces in Syria. Turkey has had centuries of experience fighting the Russians. They do not want another taste of it… certainly not alone.
The agreement with Europe is a means of establishing leverage over decision-making in Brussels, but especially in Berlin. Angela Merkel is the one European leader with the power and prestige to keep things together and get unanimity on things Turkey really wants, such as the extension of sanctions on the Russians. Keeping Moscow weak and distracted is a major goal of Erdogan’s foreign policy right now.
Turkey also needs Europe to agree to its proposal to extend a ‘no fly zone’ into northern Syria if and when the current ceasefire breaks down. So far, Europeans and Americans have refused, as the danger of accidental or not so accidental incidents with Russian jets is simply too high to be risked. Europe might see things differently if the fighting was renewed and refugees started to flow back into the Balkans.
The one solution that would end the need for this farcical agreement is a permanent end to the fighting in Syria. No one expects this. Although Europe no longer pays anything but lip service to the idea of Mr. Assad’s departure, it is critically important for both Turkey and Saudi Arabia.
Russia too has its reasons for desiring the continuation of the civil war: the refugee crisis has proven very corrosive of the European bonds of solidarity and Moscow salivates at the prospect of the European Union going into the same dustbin as the Soviet Union.
Mr. Putin would savor that as poetic irony of the highest order. Peace talks may resume on March 14 – or they may not – but it seems unlikely that this next round will be any more successful than the previous round. Too many interests are still aligned around a continuation of the conflict.