EU-Turkey Deal and Energy Hub Ambitions
The contentious deal on the migrant flow struck between the EU leadership (despite deep divisions) and Turkey seems to be rooted in the Roman principle “do ut des” (“I give that you might give”). On the surface, it looks like a sound compromise in the absence of any other unequivocal and convincing alternatives.
However, the deal has already drawn plenty of critical “slings and arrows". Nations of South East Europe, adversely affected by the in-flow of unexpected guests in the first place, remain skeptical.
The trade-inspired concept of exchanging one illegal migrant, to be deported from Europe, for one law-abiding and god-fearing resettler, deemed decent and with proper documentations, who is now malevolently stuck in a refugee camp in south eastern Anatolia, might stumble over bureaucratic hurdles, delays, law suits, appeals, misinterpretation of motives, misspelling names, whatever.
Moreover, the fate of the Idomeni camp temporary residents remains unclear, just like the new status of a “black box”, as termed by PM Alexis Tsipras, seemingly assigned to Greece by the EU. This year, in January alone, app. 70,000 migrants landed on the Greek shores from Turkey, with 90% of them made up of citizens of Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. The tide is still up, and the proposed deportations do not necessarily amount to a perfect solution, if it is a solution. This has yet to be proved by the preliminary results once the procedures are put on stream and start functioning non-stop.
It is hardly a secret that apart from a hefty compensation for Turkey, earmarked for maintaining the refugee camps on its territory and preventing a full-fledged humanitarian catastrophe, the EU leaders promised to introduce a visa-free travel for the Turks (coming into force in June) and speed up preparations for opening new chapters in the latent talks on EU membership for Turkey.
This could be the right tactics to embrace the previously alienated Turkey but it is poor strategy given the strong opposition within the EU to welcoming an economic powerhouse, at least what it used to be prior to the 2012 slowdown, and a formally secular state with the current leadership bent of spreading the ideas of “political Islam” and restoring the glory if not the status of the Ottoman Empire in its second edition. Turkey’s membership bid would hardly be approved by a number of countries, like Greece, Cyprus, and France.
It is inconceivable that the EU leaders are unaware that they are not able to deliver on the promise of a membership card for Turkey. Are they deceiving Ankara, or themselves, or both? Does it fit into a conspiracy theory? Probably, it does not.
However, it would be as wise for the Europeans to view the current blackmail by Ankara as a fluid and fleeting occurrence. It cannot last long enough to turn the EU into a hostage of the threat spelled out by the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan: if the deal with the Europeans does not deliver, especially if Turkey is not compensated generously for the trouble of keeping the refugees, “we will open the doors and say goodbye to the migrants.”
President Erdoğan openly hinted that his government would facilitate the flight westward in more ways than one. Quote: “Don’t think that the planes and the buses are there for nothing.” In other words, if Ankara is dissatisfied with the implementation of the deal with the EU, it will stimulate and assist in the long march of the migrants towards their initial goal: go and settle down in Europe. Would it not be a helping hand for German Chancellor Angela Merkel who had welcomed Muslims in 2015 urging them to come to her homeland not in thousands but… was it a million plus? Sad irony.
Should Europe be in demand of fresh blood, if you read Merkel’s statement’s fine print, then Turkey can supply it. Today it hosts, involuntarily, more than 2.5 million asylum seekers (some claim it is close to three million), and would be happy to say good-bye to them.
So, why does Brussels treat lightly these unabashed threats from a country which is coming under the fire of criticism for authoritarian rule of its leader and accused of having become “a disintegrating ally and imaginary friend” (The Guardian)? There is nagging suspicion that European leaders have assumed that the days of the ”strongman” are numbered, no matter what President Erdoğan thinks about the expiry date of his “mandate of heaven”, and have pinned hopes on an imminent change of guard in Ankara. Some experts claim, it is just round the corner, maybe in a year or two.
There are several solid foundations for such dark prophecies for President Erdoğan and his team in command. First, as the most evident, it is the steady deterioration of the economic landscape.
The spectacular GDP growth rate has evaporated after 2012. Local sources reveal that the labour market is shrinking for the well-educated university graduates who are distressed with either the tough search for the first working place or losing one. Since 2008 when the Turkish Lira was almost on par with the US dollar, the exchange rate has taken a beating and knocked down the national currency, now trading at 3- to-1. Turkish major businesses are reportedly investing abroad, but without much publicity, in an apparent attempt to save their assets and money at the time of uncertainty.
Both foreign tourists, as the single largest source of hard currency revenues, and foreign investors were scared away by the succession of appalling terrorist acts, sectarian tension pitting ethnic Turks against the local Kurds, thickening political instability and inability to predict who would succeed President Erdoğan and his ruling AKP party and, moreover, how civilized would be the transfer of power given the condensed anger in the society.
The second factor is the brewing discontent of too many adversaries President Erdoğan has effectively accumulated during his reign. First come the judiciary and the academics that defy his authoritarian style and disagree on the alleged benefits of “Islamization” for a country that swore loyalty to secular values and is so much exposed to the outside world. The pro-modernization urban intellectuals, including students, fall into this category.
Second, the disgruntled top brass, the traditional guarantors of the secular principles of the state as laid down by the nation’s founding father, Kemal Ataturk. The military had their backbone crushed several times by the “political Islamists”, and they can hardly forgive the forceful diminishment of their influence.
Third, former allies turned formidable foes, the followers of Fethullah Gülen, once staunch supporter of Erdoğan now living in self-exile in the American state of Pennsylvania. There are many and resolute, giving a certain justification for the official accusations that the Gülenists form sort of a “parallel state” and are involved in conspiring against AKP and Erdoğan’s hard-core loyalists.
Finally, the fourth factor that Brussels might be secretly taking into consideration while making concessions to Turkey (and hoping it would not be necessary to deliver on each of them) amounts to the solidified defiance of President Erdoğan and his polices by the majority of the EU member states and, in particular, by the key NATO stakeholder, the United States.
It would suffice to review the publications in The Washington Post in the last nine months to be genuinely impressed by the amount and sharpness of anti-Erdoğan criticism. In early March, Morton Abramowitz and Eric Edelman, both former US ambassadors to Turkey, co-chair the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Turkey Initiative, wrote a piece titled “Turkey’s Erdoğan must reform or resign.”
Last November, Noam Chomsky, Professor Emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Christophe Deloire, secretary general of Reporters Without Borders, made a statement with a headline reading “Turkey continues to muzzle democracy’s watchdogs.” The list is far from being over.
It is no secret that Washington and Ankara do not see eye to eye on the best tactics how to fight Daesh. The US was angry when the Turks started cross-border shelling of Syrian Kurdish militias because it has proved to be the most efficient ground force to defeat the jihadists. US President Barack Obama went as far in one interview as describing Erdoğan as a failure and an authoritarian.
Erdoğan’s Turkey has spoiled previously vigorous economic and trade relations with Russia too. Apart from the dismissal of 2,5-3,8 million tourists that provided a steady cash flow for the hospitality and sea resort industry, Ankara will now miss the chance of becoming regional energy hub. The proposed Turk Stream, despite many uncertainties over its properties, compatibility with the EU regulations, and the Greek on-shore section, would have brought enough natural gas to Turkey to uphold ambitions to elevate its status vis-a-vis Europe as a major energy provider.
All summed up, odds are against President Erdoğan and his policies of beefing up Turkish primordial nationalism while alienating the 20 million Kurdish citizens and losing friends and allies abroad. Erdoğan’s presidential term expires in 2019. Rumours have it that he would like to preside over Turkey to celebrate the centennial jubilee of the republic due in 2023. Achievable? Doubtful, at least.
True enough, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is a great survivalist. He keeps his powder dry and he has still got plenty of it. Nevertheless, it is a telling detail: the mood of his people. Insiders like Orhan Pamuk, the literary genius and Turkey's best-known writer, reveal that “hüzün”, or melancholy mood has settled in. Yet, history knows many instances when this type of public mood, hiding negative sentiments, is rather swiftly transformed into explosive wrath.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of ESCP Europe Business School.
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