When Omar Nassan left his native Syria, he never expected to go to Europe. His initial refuge was far closer: Turkey.
After fleeing a Syrian regime offensive in Aleppo in 2013, Mr. Nassan settled in Istanbul where he had hoped to wait out the war. He found under-the-table work and a cheap room, but with no easy access to work permits or Turkish citizenship, Nassan decided in August to make the perilous journey along the Balkans route to Germany.
“I had a life in Istanbul, yes, but always on my mind was question about the future,” he says. “I have to finish my masters degree and I hope to find a good job. These things were not possible for me in Turkey.”
It is refugees like Nassan who have turned Europe's attention toward Turkey, the entry point for a majority of the more than 700,000 migrants who have entered Europe this year, as a critical partner to control the flow of humanity. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has put forward a proposal that would bolster Turkey's capability to host its already huge refugee population – and give new life to its long-stalled accession to the European Union.
The deal is highly attractive to those Turks who increasingly see their country's future aligned with Europe rather than the volatile Middle East. Critics in Europe argue the deal would sacrifice principles that the EU holds most dear – free speech and human rights – by rewarding Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has been widely condemned in the West for his authoritarian rule.
“Apparently this new approach is based on realpolitik,” says Amanda Paul, an analyst at the Brussels-based European Policy Center. “It puts the EU in a rather awkward situation because they’ve had to sacrifice all of their values on democracy, human rights, and liberty — which are almost nonexistent in Turkey now — just to have Erdogan sign an action plan to solve the Syrian crisis.”
Rekindling the EU spark
Under Chancellor Merkel's proposal, announced in Istanbul earlier this month, Turkey could receive financial aid of up to $3.4 billion to boost coast guard patrols, disrupt smuggling networks, and improve the lives of more than 2 million refugees currently living on Turkish soil.
The pledge comes at a crucial time for Ankara, which is bracing for another refugee exodus in the wake of a fresh offensive by Syrian government forces backed by Russian air power.
Merkel also promised to reopen long-stalled talks over Turkey’s membership in the EU and ease visa requirements for Turkish citizens. Negotiations over Turkey’s EU membership have largely been written off after a decade of halting talks; many European capitals resisted the accession of a huge Muslim and increasingly authoritarian country.
While the migration crisis is urgent for Turkey, the boost to its EU bid is even more attractive.
“In a practical sense, Turkey wants help with its own very pressing refugee crisis — which is a clear parallel with what Europe would like,” says Ian Lesser, director of the German Marshall Fund think-tank in Brussels. “But ... getting EU membership negotiations back on track, even if actual membership is a political nonstarter at the moment, would be an enormous victory.”
A new embrace of the EU would be a significant policy shift for Turkey. In recent years, Erdogan had turned toward the Muslim world, in an effort to expand Turkish influence. But instead of establishing itself as a leader of the Middle East, Turkey has struggled to cope with the spillover of the region’s conflicts. And Turks have taken notice.
“For the Turkish public, there has been a clear realization after seeing what happened in Syria and Iraq that the Western world is a far more attractive and stable option,” says Demir Murat Seyrek, a senior policy advisor at the Brussels-based European Foundation for Democracy. “There is a real fatigue about the Middle East while public support for EU membership is growing, which is something that politicians in Turkey are very much aware of.”
A boost for Erdogan?
The deal comes at a sensitive time for Erdogan. His Justice and Development party is fighting a bitter election campaign to regain the absolute majority that eluded it in June. Ahead of the Nov. 1 election, Ankara has been cracking down against opposition media: Turkish police stormed two TV stations on Wednesday that have been critical of Erdogan. At the same time, security forces are fighting against Kurdish separatists in the south and east of the country.
Critics say that the Merkel proposal offers a symbolic political victory for Erdogan, who will be able to frame the EU concessions as a personal triumph, in exchange for actions that fail to address the root cause of the refugee crisis.
“The EU's immoral demands on containing and readmitting refugees back to Turkey, and offering money to Turkey are unfeasible,” argues Cengiz Aktar, a political scientist at Istanbul's Suleyman Sah University. “This comedy will only be of benefit to the Justice and Development Party.”
Adding to the sense of Turkey’s growing leverage over Brussels was the EU’s decision to delay the publication of a highly critical report on Turkey’s free speech record, part of the accession process, until after the election.
“Turkey holds the upper hand but at the end of the day what is getting lost in all of this — between Turkey holding a good hand and the EU wanting to dump the problem on Turkey — is precisely the flow of people who find themselves in a tragic situation to no fault of their own,” says Ms. Paul. “This should be the main focus — not what gifts can we put on Turkey’s table and how we can avoid having more refugees in Europe.”