An updated migration deal can revitalise Turkey-EU relations

The spokesperson and chief advisor to the Turkish president calls for a new migration agreement that addresses the challenges that have emerged in the last five years

BRUSSELS, March 10, 2020 Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, European Council President Charles Michel and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen (L to R) pose for a photo prior to their meeting in Brussels, Belgium, March 9, 2020
Image by picture alliance / Photoshot | –

This commentary marks the launch of a discussion ECFR is planning of what a positive agenda for the EU and Turkey could be. We will be publishing further contributions in the coming days and weeks:

Ibrahim Kalin is the spokesperson and chief advisor to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. He is also a member of the ECFR Council.

This week marks the fifth anniversary of the Turkey-EU statement on migration, which was designed to stop the flow of irregular crossings into Europe and to provide shelter and protection for Syrian refugees. This agreement dramatically reduced the number of irregular immigrants, stopped people smugglers and saved many lives. But it was never fully implemented because of the EU’s bureaucracy and the narrow political agenda of some member states. It is time to substantially revise the deal, not only to stop the next flow of migrants but also to revitalise Turkey-EU relations. A new deal could provide the basis for a new spirit in Turkey-EU relations. This, in turn, could herald a new geopolitical dynamism for our respective regions as well as for the transatlantic alliance. I hope this will be the strategic perspective of European leaders as they prepare for the EU summit on 25-26 March.

The migration deal is only one of the many key items on the larger Turkey-EU agenda, but it is an important one. Its effectiveness depends on addressing three interrelated issues.

Firstly, we must acknowledge and address the root cause of the problem, the Syrian war. Ten years ago, peaceful protesters asked for freedom, prosperity and dignified treatment from their government. The Syrian regime responded with the systematic use of unspeakable violence, killings, and summary executions. All kinds of war crimes have been committed in the last ten years. The Syrian people have borne the heaviest burden in this conflict. Hundreds of thousands of Syrians died and more than half of the population became refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs).

Syria has been destroyed beyond imagination. The war has been the source of multiple crises including migration, the rise of the Islamic State group and terrorist attacks by the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), ethnic and sectarian tensions and regional rivalries with global repercussions. In its tenth year, the Syrian crisis continues unabated. Without a serious and concerted effort by the international community, this war will continue to shake the regional order and subvert international dynamics. Europe cannot delegate such critical issues to the United States alone. It ought to take a more active and prominent role in containing this multi-dimensional crisis.

As we mark the tenth anniversary of the Syrian war, we have to put aside our differences and focus on the real issues

Secondly, many dynamics have changed over the last five years. When the agreement was signed back in 2016, Turkey had 2.5 million Syrian refugees. Today it has around 3.6 million Syrian refugees and about 400,000 refugees from Afghanistan, Libya, Iran and other parts of the world. The numbers are increasing by the day, and the problems of the refugees are deepening. Turkey is providing aid to about four million refugees within Turkey, mostly through the use of its own resources in terms of food, shelter, education and medical services, and to another five million to six million IDPs on the Syrian side. Overall, Turkey is taking care of around ten million Syrians. Furthermore, the covid-19 pandemic has worsened conditions.

We cannot expect the Syrian or other refugees to remain refugees for the rest of their lives. More political, financial and humanitarian resources must be mobilized to address the migration crisis in an effective, comprehensive and dignified manner. Europe can and must do more to go beyond burden-sharing alone. What we need is serious ownership and leadership in tackling the migration crisis and the root causes behind it.

For almost a decade, the Turkish people have shown immense hospitality and solidarity by hosting millions of Syrian refugees. However, the European attitude, with some notable exceptions, has been one of deferment and denial: “As long as the immigrants are far away from our borders, it is not our problem but someone else’s.” This cannot be the basis of a humane and functional immigration policy. Turning a blind eye to a problem does not make it disappear. What we see on the ground tends to disregard humanitarian values and norms.

Thirdly, and most importantly, an update on the 18 March statement has the potential to revitalise Turkey-EU relations. The statement already has a roadmap with the specific goals of strengthening Turkey’s accession process, starting the process of updating the customs union, revitalising high level dialogue and summits between Turkey and the EU, encouraging visa liberalization for Turkish citizens, better cooperation in the management of irregular migration and the protection of asylum-seekers, and the fight against terrorism. None of these goals is beyond reach. When President Erdoğan met the EU presidents in Brussels last year, these points were also included in the roadmap, which has yet to be implemented.

The EU needs to show leadership and determination to reciprocate Turkey’s positive steps.

Turkey has taken a number of critical steps in recent months to create a positive political climate. On 21 November 2020, President Erdoğan said that “we see ourselves in Europe, not anywhere else, we look to build our future with Europe”.  More contacts have been established between Turkish and European leaders to cover a large number of bilateral and regional issues. After much effort, things have been calm in the eastern Mediterranean and Turkey and Greece resumed exploratory/consultation talks. On 3 March, President Erdoğan announced a human rights action plan with many provisions that also contribute to a positive agenda for Turkey-EU relations. Among other areas in Syria, Turkey has been single-handedly protecting over 3 million people in Idlib, despite continuous violations and attacks by the Assad regime with the support of Russia and Iran. In the absence of such protection, several million Syrians would start moving towards Turkey and Europe. It is in Europe’s interest to support Turkey in Idlib and elsewhere in Syria to provide security and stability for hundreds of thousands of Syrians. 

These issues are all crucial to advance a positive Turkey-EU agenda and can help bring Turkey and the EU closer. All other alternatives would fail to provide security and prosperity for our citizens. This opportunity should not be squandered on the basis of the whims and narrow political agendas of certain member states.

A new migration deal should build on the achievements of the current agreement but take further steps to address the new challenges that have emerged over the last five years. The processes and mechanisms for delivering financial support to refugees in Turkey and Syria should be expedited. The needs and priorities of refugees and IDPs should be determined in consultation with Turkish and local authorities. Beyond simply providing more funding, the new deal should give the Syrian people a sense of hope and trust. 

As we mark the tenth anniversary of the Syrian war and the worst humanitarian crisis in decades, we have to put aside our differences and focus on the real issues. A revised Turkey-EU migration deal together with the main provisions contained therein would go a long way towards addressing the refugee problem and revitalising Turkey-EU relations with a positive agenda. This is how Turkey sees the process. We hope this will be the outlook of the 25-26 March EU summit.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


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