EU’s proposed deal with Ankara remains far from a sure thing

Europe accused of trying to ‘outsource’ the refugees crisis in its deal with Ankara

German chancellor Angela Merkel: Her backing of the plan gives it a strong boost. Photograph: John Thys/AFP/Getty Images

German chancellor Angela Merkel: Her backing of the plan gives it a strong boost. Photograph: John Thys/AFP/Getty Images

 

The agreement between the European Union and Turkey endorsed by EU leaders on Thursday night could signal a changing point in the EU’s relationship with Ankara.

Engagement between the EU and Turkey has intensified in the past few weeks as Europe has struggled to respond to the refugee crisis involving hundreds of thousands of Africans, Asians and Middle Easterners.

The action plan was first proposed 10 days ago during Turkish president Recip Tayyip Erdogan’s high-level visit to Brussels. European Commission vice-president Frans Timmermans and a team of his officials were then due to fly to Ankara last Sunday for talks in order to secure agreement on the plan ahead of Thursday’s summit. But the three days of mourning prompted by the terrorists attacks on Saturday pushed back their visit to Wednesday.

In late-night talks with Erdogan on Wednesday night, the commissioners agreed a deal that was presented to EU ambassadors before Thursday’s summit.

Under the action plan, the EU is to consider visa liberalisation for Turkish citizens by the spring of 2016, and to open up a number of “chapters” in the Turkish accession negotiations, which have been stalled since they began in 2005.

Both are politically sensitive issues for some member stateswary of allowing visa- free access to the Schengen Area to Turkey’s 75 million citizens.

The financial provisions of the deal have proven to be the first stumbling block, with Turkey’s foreign minister yesterday dismissing the financial measures proposed as “unacceptable.”

Extra funds

Angela Merkel

In return for concessions, the EU is demanding co-operation from Turkey on the refugee crisis. This includes registering and documenting refugees and clamping down on people smugglers who are transporting illegal migrants to Europe.

It also requires Turkey to fully implementing the “readmission agreement”, signed in 2013, which requires Turkey to reaccept migrants who are deemed to be illegally residing in the EU.

As Ankara’s cool response yesterday indicated, the deal is far from done. Similarly, there is still significant political opposition to the plan in Europe.

Speaking on his way into the meeting, French president François Hollande warned against any rapid moves to lift visa requirement, warning that bias liberalisation would be “a process that requires a lot of conditions”. Greece and Cyprus will also oppose any perceived softening of accession demands from Turkey.

But the backing of Merkel, who visits Istanbul tomorrow, is a strong boost to the plan. The official position of Germany, home to a significant Turkish population, has been a “privileged partnership” relationship between Turkey and the EU.

The proposal has already drawn criticism from the European Parliament, which has been one of the most vocal critics of alleged human rights abuses and clampdowns on media freedom in Turkey.

Belgian MEP Guy Verhofstadt, leader of the Liberal Group Alde, accused the EU of trying to “outsource” the refugee crisis.

“It is positive that the EU will work more closely together with Turkey,” he said on Friday morning, “but we should not make ourselves dependent on a country which is becoming increasingly authoritarian.”

Policy shift

Rather than focus on the EU’s humanitarian and legal obligations to accept and relocate refugees, the talk at Thursday night’s summit was of strengthening borders, implementing “readmission” agreements and stemming the flow of arrivals.

European Council president Donald Tusk has been driving this policy shift, but it may also reflect a change in public mood in Germany.

Merkel has faced mounting criticism from the public as well as within her own party over her handling of the refugee crisis as the country struggles to cope logistically with the thousands of refugees who continue to arrive to the country. A survey by German public television earlier this month showed that the chancellor’s approval rating has dropped to its lowest level since 2011.

Officially, the German government is now focusing on increasing deportation rates for those who are not eligible for asylum, particularly from the Balkan region, while processing those genuinely in need of it.

Still, Merkel’s decision to open the door to Syrian refugees, which aides say was driven by her passionate belief in a Europe without borders given her own East German background, may prove to be the political gamble of her career.