At the European Union summit on Oct. 15, European leaders announced with much fanfare an EU-Turkey joint action plan designed to help stem the flow of refugees through Turkey to Europe. In exchange for Turkey’s cooperation with the EU on migration, EU leaders agreed to provide Turkey with funds (in an amount still to be determined) to help the country manage more than two million refugees currently housed within its borders. The EU also agreed to “accelerate” Turkey’s visa liberalization process, which would allow visa-free access to the EU’s Schengen area for Turkish citizens. Finally, leaders committed to “re-energizing” Turkey’s EU accession negotiations.
Though the outcomes of the summit are far from finalized, we can glean some important insights from the deliberations:
The EU is desperate. Really desperate. Turkey’s relationship with the EU has never been free of controversy. As recently as 2014, European officials have stated unequivocally that Turkey is “not politically fit to join the European Union and shouldn’t become a member,” citing the country’s deplorable human rights record, its contentious relationship with Cyprus, and its lack of cultural similarity to the rest of Europe. Accession talks have essentially been frozen for the past few years, and the visa liberalization process has seen little progress made on either side.
It is thus no small development that leaders put Turkey’s EU candidacy back on the table as an incentive to cooperate on migration. Plainly speaking, if the EU thought that there was any other way to solve this crisis, accession and visa liberalization would not be in the realm of discussion. Like a bad poker player, the EU has shown to the parties involved that it has run out of moves, and is willing to entertain any option to save itself from the mess it is in.
EU member states are still not ready to commit to internal relocation of migrants. Conspicuously absent from the summit’s final conclusions are any further commitments to the much-discussed permanent EU relocation scheme. Efforts at redistributing asylum seekers from border states such as Italy and Greece to other EU countries have so far failed spectacularly, and the scheme’s efficacy has been roundly criticized on all sides as migrants continue to flood across EU borders.
However, dropping the issue from the official summit conclusions makes clear that member states are no closer to an agreement on how to effectively share the migrant burden than before the current crisis began. Instead, the strategy seems to be to move the focus to areas where member state sovereignty is not at stake—to stop the flow of migrants before they enter the EU’s borders. This reliance on the ability of external countries to solve a problem that has acute consequences for the EU will no doubt prove shortsighted as tensions at home continue to gain urgency.
The proverbial “golden carrot” of EU membership still holds sway. The rise of anti-EU sentiment across the region, combined with high rates of unemployment and persistent economic woes in the eurozone, has taken some of the traditional appeal out of EU membership in candidate countries. A December 2014 poll put support for EU membership in Turkey at a record low, with only 28 percent of Turks agreeing that EU membership would be a “good thing.”
At the same time, the promise of EU membership remains a tool to be used to Europe’s advantage. Putting visa liberalization and EU accession on the negotiating table got the attention of Turkey’s leadership, and convinced them that the EU was serious about cooperation on the migrant crisis. Few observers are so naïve as to believe that the EU will be inviting Turkey into the club just yet, but Turkey’s reaction to the discussions at the summit indicates that the EU still holds at least one important bargaining chip in its relationship with Turkey.
Erdogan won, but Turkey may lose. Turkey is only weeks away from general elections, and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is facing stiff opposition. His record of human rights, and recent government violence against peaceful political protesters, has garnered negative attention around the world. Yet the EU summit’s outcome represents a huge victory for Erdogan, who is now able to go home and frame the summit as a personal triumph, having gotten the EU to promise additional funds for managing migrant flows, a possible speeding up of visa liberalization, and even the potential to return to accession negotiations—all issues with significant political salience for the Turkish population. The effect could very well sway the electorate in Erdogan’s party’s favor when Turks vote on November 1—a result that would pose a serious blow to democracy in Turkey.
Discussions between the EU and Turkey on this issue are far from over, but the summit has made clear that Turkey will play an integral role in the EU’s strategy to manage a crisis that it was unprepared to handle on its own.
Sarah Bedenbaugh is Associate Director in the Atlantic Council’s European Union and Special Initiatives.