European Union-Turkey relations, which began with Turkey’s membership application to the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1959 and its approval in 1963, have gone through a very turbulent period in recent years. EEC-Turkey relations were frozen after the 1980 military coup and reinitiated after the multiparty elections in 1983. Relations soured once again in 2016, following a gradual increase of tensions beginning in 2013. The European Union’s attitude toward Turkey’s domestic issues starting from the 2013 Gezi events to the July 15, 2016, failed coup attempt of the Gülenist Terror Group (FETÖ) played an important role in bringing relations nearly to a halt. However, as I will discuss here, the EU owes its future to Turkey.
Turkey officially applied for full membership in the EU in 1987, entered the customs union in 1996 and started its full membership negotiations in 2005. But the EU slowed down the process and did not open the necessary chapters for a very long time, which exhausted Ankara's patience. The basic problems, which stemmed from several issues such as Cyprus and Turkish-Armenian relations, could not be solved and relations began to falter as the EU’s approach to Turkey’s membership took an intriguing turn. And yet, both parties continued to stay at the negotiation table. Over time, the Syria civil war and the Eastern Mediterranean tensions added to the list of problems.
During the 2013 Gezi events, Turkey was harshly criticized by Western media for an alleged lack of Western values, freedoms and rights, and some EU leaders joined the chorus. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was suddenly depicted as a "dictator" in the headlines of Western papers. However, Turkey's memories were fresh of how harsh methods were used to crack down on similar demonstrations in Berlin, Paris, Rome and Athens. The year 2013 was a turning point for Turkey-EU relations as they once again took a downturn. In addition to that, EU countries have provided a safe haven to the members or sympathizers of terrorist organizations such as FETÖ and the PKK. Not only that, but the EU also attacked Turkey’s anti-terror policies, ignoring their own counterterrorism activities.
Syria's role in Turkey-EU ties
Undoubtedly, Syria's civil war has played a major role in this tension between Turkey and the EU. In 2013, when the Barack Obama administration changed its entire Middle East policy, especially in Syria, EU countries preferred to follow him without asking questions. France was the only European country to follow a humanitarian policy toward Syria, and its policy was similar to Turkey’s in Syria during former President François Hollande’s term. However, after Daesh started its terror attacks in France with the Charlie Hebdo magazine in January 2015, France became the most targeted country in Europe. As a result, France moved away from the political line it had pursued. While Hollande's popularity hit rock bottom, the rise of the extreme-right gradually reached an alarming level. Political parties that decided to stop extreme-right leader Marine Le Pen gathered during the 2017 presidential election and pooled their support behind Emmanuel Macron. In that way, they managed to stop the extreme-right for the time being.
After German Chancellor Angela Merkel suggested that Germany could host 1 million refugees, despite showing perhaps the most humanitarian approach of all of Europe, her popularity also declined. She had been the most influential leader in Europe by far; however, her words ignited the far-right’s rise even more, not only in Germany but also in other European countries. Across Europe, particularly in Austria, Hungary and Italy, the refugee crisis of 2015 fueled xenophobia, raising concerns among European leaders about the future of the EU.
Islamophobia and xenophobia, accompanied by the refugee crisis, of course, skyrocketed in the wake of Daesh’s terrorist attacks. Increased security measures did not quell the anti-refugee sentiment among the citizens of EU countries. The questions of the sovereignty of the European states and freedom of movement in the EU were raised. The number of euroskeptics began to increase as xenophobia reached an unprecedented level that had not been seen even during the huge debt crisis that had previously shaken the EU.
Schengen was in shambles. Many European leaders such as Merkel warned Europe that the migrant crisis could lead to the questioning of the European Union. All we heard was that “the EU is on the brink of collapse.” The opinions of important figures such as George Soros, the Hungarian-American billionaire known for his political influence all over the world, were disconcerting.
Ultimately, what the EU leaders most feared happened. In 2016, Great Britain said “Yes” in the Brexit referendum and decided to leave the EU. Now, four years later, the painful process of Britain’s divorce from the EU has begun. The next fear was that other countries would follow Britain's example and that the rise of euroskeptics would not be stopped.
The EU’s unkept promises
We know that the rise of the far-right is ongoing from the anti-Muslim attacks in Western countries. Following the recent right-wing terror attack in Hanou, Germany, Merkel said: "Racism is a poison. Hate is a poison. And this poison exists in our society."
On the other hand, Turkey, all that time, was alone against the threats coming from Syria, the country that it has a border of 822 kilometers with. The terror and violence in Syria were increasing and spreading across the border thanks to the instability in the devastated country and the lack of help from Turkey’s NATO allies. The Assad regime was growing bolder and more brutal as it received support from Russia and Iran. For years, Turkey had to prevent the threats against its our nation and tried to deal with those problems, which were actually affecting Europe as well, by itself. Ironically, instead of helping Turkey, which hosts more than 3.5 million Syrian refugees who fled their war-torn country out of fear for their lives, the West continued to criticize it. Giving priority to the fight against Daesh was a choice, but it was a wrong choice. The West had to focus on draining the swamp that it had enabled to rise up in the first place. Turkey warned the West many times, but no one listened. And there was more. Under the pretext of fighting Daesh, the EU, following the U.S., supplied the outlawed PKK’s Syrian offshoot, the YPG, which decided to carry the civil war in Syria into Turkey. They couldn’t achieve their goal because of Turkey’s anti-terror policy, which was unjustly criticized by the West.
In addition to the fact that Turkey's Western allies abandoned it, they also spread lies such as “Turkey is supporting Daesh.” The YPG, in 2015-2016, was carrying the weapons that were sent to them to fight Daesh into Turkey through tunnels, and the PKK was using those weapons to carry out terror attacks in Turkey. Daesh was also attacking Turkey in those days. In fact, Turkey was the most targeted country by Daesh. Meanwhile, the PKK was conducting anti-Turkey propaganda, and the European capitals, where PKK tents were set up in city centers, became shelters for PKK residents. However, the EU was not finding Turkey's security measures to fight terrorism compatible with fundamental rights and freedoms.
But, when displaced Syrians turned their face to Europe for refuge, the EU, this time, was concerned about its own security and stability. While millions of people around the world needed help and protection, the highest number since World War II, the so-called "wise," "far-sighted" and "human rights defender" leaders of the EU appeared at Turkey's door. The shadow of Europe’s ex-ghoul – racism – was about to rise again, and they were terrified.
For years, "Western values" were a stick that was unfairly used as an argument against Turkey when the parties could not come to terms. We have not heard this term since then, since those values had to survive in the first place.
Turkey-EU agreement in 2016
The EU had to make a deal with Turkey to rescue itself. In March 2016, Turkey and the EU reached an agreement. Accordingly, Turkey started to take back all irregular migrants as of April 4, while on the same date, Syrians living in Turkey began to be resettled in EU countries. For every Syrian returned to Turkey from the Aegean islands – an effort to save lives and break up the migrant smuggling networks – the EU in return promised to resettle one Syrian from Turkey to replace illegal migration with legal migration. That did not happen. However, this would have been a great opportunity and taking of responsibility to share the burden that Turkey has been advocating for since the start of the Syrian crisis in 2011.
The EU also pledged 6 million euros to meet the needs of Syrian refugees in Turkey as a part of this Turkey-EU Action Plan on Migration. It sent only half of that.
Also, visa liberation for Turkish citizens traveling to the Schengen area was slotted to happen by the end of June 2016. That did not happen as well, as the EU chose to raise difficulties. The EU used Turkey’s anti-terror policies as an excuse despite Turkey facing a critical need to stop the terror attacks of the PKK and Daesh that were costing many Turkish citizens’ lives. In the meantime, the EU continued to support the outlawed PKK.
Eventually, Turkey had to develop a new policy toward Syria. It improved its relations with Russia. In order to de-escalate the violence in Syria, the Astana process was launched with Iran and Russia. They struck a particular agreement for Idlib, in which Russia and Turkey agreed to form a demilitarized zone to drive a wedge between the forces of Bashar Assad and the opposition in order to save more than 3 million lives trapped in the province.
Three million civilians stuck in Idlib were able to breathe for a while; but Assad's violations with the help of Russia's air support increased recently, and Turkey found more than 1 million refugees waiting at the border once again. A new refugee influx has been on the horizon. Ultimately, Ankara came to the end of its tether after the Assad regime started to deliberately kill Turkish soldiers inside Idlib, shunning the Sochi agreement. Turkey started its fourth ground operation in Syria, namely Spring Shield Operation, to stop the Assad regime and save the lives of its soldiers and millions of Syrian civilians. Finally, Russia and Turkey sat at the negotiating table last week. They found a new solution to stop the violence and signed a new protocol in addition to the Sochi agreement in Idlib. But we all know that it is temporary, as Assad will not stop his assault.
President Erdoğan – who aims to form a safe zone east of the Euphrates and provide an area to which refugees can return, cannot find support for that even from Europeans, who bear a part of the burden of the previous migrant crisis – said that Turkey will no longer prevent the refugees from going to Europe if they wish.
Erdoğan's 'compelling diplomacy'
As a result, we now watch on TV screens the refugees who want to go to Europe trying reach Greece. We also see the inhumane behavior of the Greeks trying to stop the refugees. European leaders appear to be scared if their successive phone calls to President Erdoğan are any indication.
Ultimately, migrants not only from Syria but also from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran come to Turkey as a transit zone on their journey to Europe. But despite the EU not keeping any of its promises, Turkey carry this burden on behalf of humanity. However, is it not necessary for others to realize the situation and do their duty? Shouldn't at least the "March 18, 2016 agreement" as a result of the EU's attempted solution for Syria give support to Turkey?
The EU stopped the refugee influx in 2016 by reaching a deal with Turkey and returned from the brink of an EU crisis. Now, a new refugee crisis is coming. What will Europe do, as the xenophobia that would pave the way for a new wave of euroskepticism continues to rise? The voices crying out for the EU to support Turkey are growing louder but will the EU start acting instead of just talking?
Others can say that Erdoğan is threatening Europe with the refugees. But I describe his actions as "compelling diplomacy." As no one cares for others' tears and all the world leaders increasingly choose to put pressure on their allies for the sake of their own country's interests, instead of pursuing bilateral talks, I think this is the only way.
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