EU ministers in a bind as they face decision on Turkey
European Union fears impact of Turkish action on war against Isis, but is unlikely to act
Smoke rises over the Syrian town of Tel Abyad. The military action is part of a campaign to extend Turkish control of more of northern Syria, a large swath of which is currently held by Syrian Kurds, whom Turkey regards as a threat. Photograph: Burak Kara/Getty Images
When EU foreign ministers gather in Luxembourg on Monday their main pre-occupation will inevitably be what to do about Turkey.
The relationship with the Nato ally which, in theory at least, also aspires to EU membership, has been spiralling downwards and appears to be on the verge of crash landing with the simultaneous decisions by president Recep Tayyip Erdogan to invade northern Syria and his authorisation of a third drilling rig in member-state Cyprus’s waters.
As casualties mount, Washington is now talking sanctions against Turkey, despite an initial Trump green light to the Syria operation. Treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin said on Friday Trump was ready to sign an executive order approving “very significant new sanctions authorities”– but that the US was not yet “activating” the measures.
“These are very powerful sanctions. We hope we don’t have to use them but we can shut down the Turkish economy if we need to,” Mnuchin warned.
Erdogan might be forgiven for being confused. The message from the EU, however, is both less mixed but more toothless – the 28 are unanimously opposed to both the invasion and the demonisation of the anti-Isis alliance’s Kurdish allies, and have called on Ankara to halt it immediately.
They view the Turkish move as deeply destabilising of the campaign against Islamic State, fear that its imprisoned fighters will be released by overstretched Kurdish fighters.They also worry that the forced repatriation of Syrian refugees from the camps in Turkey may lead many of them, fearful of returning to a country still riven by war, to head in the opposite direction, to resume the interrupted flows of refugees across the Mediterranean to Greece.
There are also fears that the repatriation of non-Kurdish Syrian refugees to majority-Kurdish areas could result in serious tensions and even fighting. EU sources warn that forced demographic change will be vigorously opposed.
But turning verbal condemnation into concrete pressure is another matter, on Syria as on the drilling. No sanctions are being proposed, let alone agreed, on Monday, and there is no expectation that the leaders at this week’s summit will do any more.
It’s a real dilemma. As the old aphorism goes, “you owe the bank one hundred euros, you worry. You owe the bank a million, it worries.”
And the EU is deeply beholden to Turkey for stemming the migrant flows from Syria. It has committed €6 billion to refugee welfare in the camps as a quid pro quo for Turkey stemming the flow into Greece. To date some 96 per cent of it has been allocated, although not yet spent, but EU funding is contributing to education and health programmes for 500,000 children. Could it cut it off?
Erdogan makes no bones about his attitude. He is not reversing his position on the incursion and told the Europeans bluntly that he will rip up the EU-Turkey agreement and send some of the 3.6 million Syrian refugees Turkey hosts to Europe if the offensive is described as “an occupation”.
Senior EU diplomats admit the dilemma. One told journalists on Friday that it would be “totally unacceptable to use [the refugee funding] as leverage”. Humanitarian aid must not be used as a political weapon.
Commission president Jean Claude Juncker told MEPs that while he recognised Turkey has “security concerns” along the border, a political solution was the only way to end the Syrian conflict: “I have to say if the Turkish plan involves the creation of a so-called safe zone, don’t expect the European Union to pay for any of it.” The EU will not cut off funding, which it says goes directly to refugees, but will not allow it to follow them back to Syria.
Contacts with Ankara have produced little joy although on one issue there was some “reassurance”. The Turkish authorities, the senior diplomat said, have promised that their aim is to facilitate returns to refugees’ homes and not to force them to settle in ethnically different areas.
While limited bilateral measures may be taken against Turkey – Germany and France have banned arms exports and Italy and Spain are expected to withdraw air-defence deployments protecting Turkey’s southern border – both Nato and the EU appear unlikely to agree co-ordinated sanctions.
Today EU ministers will find their options frustratingly limited largely to diplomatic appeals to Ankara to allow the UN’s political negotiations a chance.
Turkey simply holds too many of the cards.