Turkey and the European Union Concerning the Syrian Refugee Crisis

This comment is a continuation of the YIRA Winter 2016 International Trip Group’s Istanbul, Ankara, and Izmir, Turkey Trip Summary.


The European Union has the original purpose of creating stability on the European continent. Historically this has included economic, political, and cultural alliances.  Hence, the formation on which Turkey has sought to join the European Union has based itself around these regional and geopolitical issues. Turkey’s European disposition has been a longstanding facet of the region’s history.

Turkey saw the early precursors to the European Union as a natural transition in accordance with a bond that had been forming for centuries.  In 1959, Turkey applied to join the European Economic Community as an associate member.  For twenty years Turkey formed agreements with the EEC, laying out groundwork for strong economic ties.  The Ankara Agreement, which created timetables for economic integration such as free movement of laborers, was a positive sign in 1963 in addition to further protocols in the 1970’s.  The West found Turkey to be a willing ally of democracy in the Cold War, and it developed a multi-party democratic framework.  However, the political turmoil in the wake of the 1980 governmental coup froze the warming relations with the EEC.  The EU did not approve of the instability and human rights abuses of the military, which detained thousands and killed dozens of citizens.

Turkey submitted a further application for European economic zone contention in 1987 and was granted a customs union in 1995.  In 1997, Turkey entered beginning talks for European Union candidacy.  The Helsinki Council in 1999 declared Turkey a full candidate for EU candidacy.  Over the next decade, Turkey and EU worked together to pave the process for ascension.  The EU allowed deepened economic connections between Turkey and the trade block, and the European financial institutions provided assistance and cooperation with Turkey’s framework.  Turkey, for its part, modified its constitution to attempt the Copenhagen Agreement reforms.  The Copenhagen standards are protocols that a state must reach in order to become a member of the EU.  The major changes in Turkey included human rights and political improvements.  Negotiations with the EU continued throughout the 2000’s, but no agreement of substance was formed for Turkey.

The European Union has very significant barriers to entry.  The Union has great control over enlargement and only accepts countries to which it agrees on based upon very complex negotiations.  At the basis is adherence to the acquis, which is a very long set of laws and regulations to guide a state’s policy within the EU.  In essence, the entire negotiation process is to determine if the applying state has met these standards and is therefore fit to institute EU law.  Without meeting all the requirements in the acquis, a country will not have the framework necessary to be governed by and participate in the EU.  Other important considerations such as the Copenhagen Agreements are necessary, and Turkey’s progress on these accords is a current topic of discussion.  Public opinion in the EU and in Turkey shifts back and forth, but there has been a general commitment from Ankara and various EU states to the accession.

Trip Analysis:

The most significant change to Turkish-EU relations in the past decade has been the Syrian refugee crisis.  Europe has seen over a million refugees enter its borders, and member states have reacted with everything from comprehensive integration in Sweden to the abrupt construction of a fence in Hungary.  The EU reaction and aftermath of the refugee influx is largely beyond the scope of this article.  Many say this is one of the largest hurdles to ever face the EU, and some hypothesize it will be the demise of the Union or of the coalitions within.  However, one thing is clear—Europe in general wanted to plug the stream of refugees onto the continent.  At the end of 2015, EU leaders pledged to give Ankara over three billion dollars in exchange for increased border security along the Turkey-EU divide.  The Turkish government has spent an estimated ten billion on the crisis so far. Additionally as part of the deal, Angela Merkel, a previously staunch opponent to Turkish accession, indicated that the EU would reopen chapters of Turkey’s candidacy.  More immediately, Turkey has been promised that its citizens will be able to partake in the visa-free Schengen zone, a change that is likely to be implemented over the next year.  These details were developing as our group met with leaders in Turkey.

Our first meeting with Alliance of International Health Doctors, an NGO in Istanbul, was sobering as to the lives of the refugees and the reason they would undertake a dangerous voyage to Europe.  Many members of these displaced families suffer from trauma and depression.  A common trend that the doctors mentioned is the unhappiness and discontent of mothers.  Many of the refugees feel that Europe holds promises of citizenship and prosperity, two items that they have not found in Istanbul.  Dozens die every month crossing the Aegean Sea.  Ships capsize easily and rescue efforts are not always possible.  Yet, the drive to reach Europe and its implications is a powerful motivator.

Accessing Europe through legal means is often equally as challenging, or nearly impossible. A law firm volunteering for refugee rights in Istanbul noted that refugees often have to wait eight or nine months to be processed for asylum.  The laws change daily as there is confusion, reluctance, and disaccord between the top levels of government and the varying levels of bureaucracy.  Refugees are left unsure if they qualify for a residency permit or a pathway to citizenship, neither of which were possible at the date of our visitation.  This creates a further incentive for refugees to travel to Europe where they have heard citizenship is being granted.  The Turkish government did not have a clear classification policy on refugees at the beginning of this crisis as Syrian refugees are given a different status than European or other Middle Eastern groups.  This occurred because Turkey at the time still followed the 1951 Geneva agreement on refugee and asylum seeker classifications, whereas most other countries had updated it in decades since.  According to the volunteer law office, Turkey is currently in the process of implementing ID cards and a registration system for the refugees that will allow them to access their rights across the state.

A professor at Koç University highlighted that Turkey has always been a transit zone.  Refugees and migrants pass through the country, often with the aim of reaching Europe, which has held conservative views on immigration since the 1980’s.  Turkey has been fearful of lifting the 1951 Geneva limitations since it might change the flow or refugees and migrants to an unfeasible amount.  A new government agency, the Directorship for Migration Management, was made especially for appeasement of the EU.  Migration legislation has become the defining policy point between the two bodies.  The professor said large improvements have been made within Turkey since 2004, and while the EU used to be very preoccupied with human rights, they are now very occupied with migration and the economy.  He said Turkey would help the EU demographic problem and provide a relatively strong economy were it to join the Union.  However, he said complete accession is not a high priority at the moment, and Ankara is likely more focused on maintaining beneficial relations with not only the EU but also India, China, and Africa.

Although Turkey and Istanbul have provided much for the refugees, the lack of work permits severely limits the productivity of the refugee workers.  Refugees hope to get to Germany, according to one Turkish citizen who has been in direct contact with Syrian workers, and do not want to stay in Greece or Eastern Europe.  The rate is about $950 to get from Turkey to Greece with a smuggler as the Turkey-Greece land border is guarded.  It is this dangerous crossing that the EU wishes to stem.  The governor of a predominantly Syrian district in Istanbul commented that Greece sinks the boats of refugees and blames it on Turkey.  The governmental mood at the local level is clear—they feel Turkey is doing all it can to help absorb the Syrians into its population, while the EU does not find it in its heart to reach out to these people in need.

In Ankara, a prominent think tank illuminated some of the differences between Turkey and the EU on approaching the refugee topic and how it affects accession.  Turkey has historically been a point of refuge and has traditionally had an open border during such circumstances.   According to the think tank, it is reasonable for the Turkish populace to accept the Syrians as former Ottoman relatives. They postulated that the EU might see Turkey as a dumping ground of sorts, and when the countries come together they speak of Middle Eastern foreign policy not accession.  The think tank remarked that Ankara and Berlin have possibly lost their hunger for accession, with Ankara becoming closer to Beijing.  However, talks have been reignited by the urgency of this conflict and its importance to the EU, and the chapters that had previously been dormant are being readdressed.

A meeting with a high government official further illuminated the Turkish perspective that the Union could not handle just a million refugees.  He described Turkey as saving humanity with its efforts while officials in Greece, Hungary, and other EU states turn their backs on those in need.  When asked why he thinks refugees still want to go to Europe, he laughingly responded that he too would like to know the answer to this.  A possible answer is the desire to have EU quota benefits.  Although resentful of EU actions, he still described the relationship between EU and Turkey as moving forward well.

Additionally in Ankara, the US Ambassador to Turkey, John Bass, commented on the relations in that he sees the EU as reevaluating Turkey after devaluing it for many years.  He said it is a challenge for the two countries to show that their relationship is not purely transactional, referencing the recent deal.  The embassy commented that accession has become very closely linked with the refugee crisis, and cited a recent poll that most Turkish citizens do in fact wish to join the EU.  Certainly, the embassy illuminated, Turkey wants to be what the world would consider European, and the effort to join the EU inspires a sense of pride.

A final meeting with the Turkish Minister to the EU began with a reaffirmation of Turkey’s commitment to refugees, as it had done with the Kurds, Iraqis, and Bulgarians.  He insisted they be called guests in the country, and talked of how work permits had just been given to some Syrians that very day.  The minister explained that the coast guard was being ramped up, likely in response to the EU deal.  When asked what Turkey would give the EU, he highlighted the power of the Turkish military and the lack of an EU one, the boom the Turkish workforce would encourage, and the increased customs union.  Lastly, he said the Union will not stay Christian any longer and wants Turkey to be the standard bearer for modern Islam.  He sees the refugee crisis as a new opportunity to embark on this path.

The EU and Turkey share a unique relationship, and one that will be strained or forged in the coming years.  Europe will be facing internal strife over the crisis for the next few election cycles, and it remains to be seen how this deal affects Turkey with the opening of the free visa system.  It is no surprise to find that Turkey has derided the EU while simultaneously using the crisis to its advantage.  Turkey seems comfortable in its powerful position on migration, and they seem to wish to enhance their stance in Europe on a governmental front.  The accession of Turkey might be around the corner, but it remains a challenge as to how the two bodies will form a long-term agreement after this crisis concludes.


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