Five years since signing a landmark migration agreement with the EU grappling with successive waves of asylum seekers fleeing conflict and persecution, Turkey now seeks to revise the deal, arguing that the bloc has failed to keep its promises.
The deal was signed on March 18, 2016, as the Syrian civil war continued to uproot millions who then began their “journey of hope” to reach the EU. The agreement contained six key points, including the reinvigoration of Ankara’s EU ascension process, the modernization of their Customs Union, revival of top-level dialogue, visa liberalization for Turkish nationals, cooperation in managing migration flows and counter-terrorism.
Under the deal, the EU also pledged to provide €6 billion ($6.64 billion) for Syrians in need. However, according to Turkish Deputy Foreign Minister and Director of EU Affairs Faruk Kaymakci, “only €3.6 billion were spent or could reach Syrians” and the bloc should help Turkey, the southern border of NATO and the EU, in hosting refugees of other nationalities which number half a million, especially from Asia and Africa.
Turkish officials have repeatedly said the country had spent more than $40 billion on refugees since the Syrian conflict broke out in 2011. Turkey today hosts 3.66 million Syrians under the status of temporary protection, along with 500,000 others, making it the world’s top refugee-hosting country.
Another point of contention involving the deal was Brussels’ failure to support Turkey in its efforts to roll back terror groups in Syria, including Daesh/ISIS and the PKK/YPG, as well as to stabilize a region for Syrian refugees to return to their home country in a safe, voluntary, dignified way.
The EU was critical of the military interventions Ankara deployed to attain these goals. However, they also aimed to prevent a further influx of refugees into Turkey and the EU, especially in the opposition-held northwestern Idlib region, which was often bombarded by the forces of Bashar al-Assad regime and its Russian backers.
Turkish operations have so far ensured the return of 420,000 Syrians to their homes in the liberated areas.
Though the 2016 deal noted that the EU and its member countries would join Turkey’s efforts to improve humanitarian conditions in Syria, Ankara and Turkish aid groups were often alone in their relief efforts for the returnees. One Turkish NGO, the Istanbul-based Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH), solely built 14,000 brick houses in Idlib to replace the tent cities where the returnees struggled to survive the elements.
In its more than 35-year terror campaign against Turkey, the PKK – listed as a terrorist organization by Turkey, the US, and the EU – has been responsible for the deaths of at least 40,000 people, including women, children, and infants. The YPG is the PKK’s Syrian offshoot.
In 2013, Turkey became one of the first countries to declare Daesh/ISIS a terrorist group. In response to multiple attacks by the terror group that killed over 300 people in the country and injured hundreds of others, Turkey launched anti-terror operations at home and abroad to prevent further strikes.
Ankara has also accused the EU of not fulfilling its promise under the agreement to accelerate Turkey’s near-frozen accession process to the bloc.
Disputes have since mounted further, with the EU siding with Greece in the Eastern Mediterranean where Athens and Ankara have been contesting maritime boundaries. Ankara argues that its relations with the EU have been hijacked by Greece and the Greek Cypriot administration.
Although the EU-Turkey deal announced that the sides would also start work on upgrading the Customs Union that they signed in 1996, this effort to facilitate the accession process through a transitory solution has also borne little fruit so far. Turkey has long been pushing for the modernization of the union.
With a sharp drop in irregular migration to the continent, the EU benefited greatly from the 2016 deal. According to UN data, a total of 856,723 irregular migrants crossed into the bloc through Turkey in 2015 before the deal was signed, compared to under 60,000 that arrived by the end of 2020 and 9,714 who have moved through the Aegean islands so far this year.
Blocking asylum seekers
It was the novel coronavirus pandemic that prevented further escalation of another problem harming Turkey-EU relations. As the conflict in northwestern Syria escalated, risking a new migration influx, Turkey in February 2020 opened its border with Greece, where thousands of asylum seekers trying to make their way to Europe clashed with Greek border forces.
Amid the incidents that led to the death of at least one asylum seeker and the injury of hundreds of others, senior EU officials lauded Greece as the “shield” of Europe, visiting military points near the border. Amid the onset of the pandemic, Ankara evacuated the asylum seekers from the border region to help prevent infection.
Athens has also resorted to illegal means to block asylum seekers from arriving on its shores via the Aegean Sea, with Turkish authorities accusing the Greek side of pushing their back to Turkish territorial waters and the European Border and Coast Guard Agency FRONTEX of helping them do so.
Despite the fact that the EU and Turkey have been at odds for a while, Ankara has made a point of keeping diplomatic channels open and calling for constructive dialogue for a win-win policy that would work in favor of both sides.
As for the EU, Josep Borrel, the EU foreign policy chief, said on Tuesday that the deal had been criticized but produced tangible results, adding that renewing it would be in the bloc’s best interest.
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