Erdoğan’s refugee gambit

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s current efforts to induce the European Union to accept large numbers of refugees from Syria, or pay large sums to Turkey to continue to host them, appear to be failing.  The atmosphere has changed considerably since the refugee crisis of 2015-16. 

The EU has several reasons for opposing the migration of refugees from within Turkey into Europe - a few are quite unpleasant, but others are simply prudential considerations for EU leaders.

Politicians like to hold office, knowing that to implement a programme in the best interests of their fellow citizens requires exercising the levers of power. Also, the perquisites of office are attractive, as is exercising authority over others. In each politician, the admirable desire for public service contends with the desire for the perquisites of office and satisfying personal ambition.  

Regardless of the motivation, politicians are driven to seek election and re-election. The EU’s elected leaders know that being seen to allow massive numbers of refugees into Europe as occurred in 2015 would damage their election chances, so they will have none of it. Bluntly, xenophobic nationalist parties are on the rise, and even if elected leaders hold them in contempt, they must do their electoral calculus with the attitudes of all voters in mind.  

Likewise, there is little sympathy for opening the EU cheque book to help Turkey given the attitude and rhetoric its president and senior leaders have directed against the EU. There is the growing resentment in Europe of the tactics Erdoğan uses in dealing with the EU. This undermines sympathy for efforts to help him manage the refugee crisis, which many regard as due in large part to his determination to unseat Assad by supporting the armed opposition. An attitude of “he made his bed now let him lie in it” seems to have emerged in the last few years.  

Erdoğan engages in counter-productive rhetoric. He repeatedly lectures EU leaders, and Europeans in general, on what he sees as their obligations to care for refugees, their failure to treat Turkey fairly, and their Islamophobia. Increasingly, EU leaders, reflecting the attitudes of their electorate, show less willingness to be judged on their humanitarian response by Turkey’s president who regularly abuses the human or civil rights of Turkish citizens because of their ethnicity (Kurds), profession (journalists), or politics (the opposition parties). Also, they have tired of Erdoğan blaming all missteps or failures in the EU-Turkey relationship on the EU. 

While well-aware of the not insignificant number of extreme nationalist, xenophobic citizens within their midst, they know that the vast majority of Europeans do not hate Muslims or Turks simply for their religion or nationality.  In sum, no one likes to be lectured to, and it is unwise to berate those from whom you are asking assistance.  

In the United States, only President Donald Trump and a few members of Congress speak well of Erdoğan. There are even fewer who speak well of him in the EU’s corridors of power. Much ink has been spilled commenting on the pivot of Turkey away from the United States and towards Russia, but the pivot towards Russia has been away from Europe as well. If Erdoğan had wanted to distance himself from the United States, but maintain ties with Europe, he could have gone shopping for missile systems among the European defence companies. 

If he had wanted to lessen dependence on Russian hydrocarbons, he could have avoided antagonising the EU with provocative patrols and exploration activities in the waters of one of its member states, Cyprus. Having taken calculated steps to distance his country politically from the EU, his laments about the lack of EU support for Turkey fall on deaf ears.

Such tactics and rhetoric set the tone; recent actions determined the response. Erdoğan’s continued declaration that the border to Greece was open and the reported transportation of refugees to the border crossings (though denied by Turkish officials) reinforce the EU’s determination to maintain secure frontiers and not allow a massive wave of Middle Eastern refugees to enter. 

Contributing to the EU’s determination was evidence in some press reports that most of the refugees arriving at the border with Greece were not Syrians to whom Turkey had given refuge from the murderous assaults of Assad, but were from numerous other countries and were seizing an opportunity to seek employment in Europe.  

And then there is COVID-19 coronavirus. Undue fear as well as legitimate concerns about the spread of this virus have resulted in draconian quarantine measures within countries and rigorous checks at their borders. EU leaders have a ready-made excuse for not allowing large numbers of people to flow into Europe. We can expect to soon hear that severe border controls are being put in place “out of a preponderance of caution”. 

Reports of little to no progress from Erdoğan’s meeting in Brussels last week with the European Council President Charles Michel and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen are unsurprising. In a pointed statement, von der Leyen earlier had referred to Greece as a shield (using the Greek term Aspida) protecting Europe, soon after the Turkish operation in Syria was named Spring Shield (Bahar Kalkanı).  

Whether out of electoral worries, personal negative feelings towards Erdoğan and his tactics, anti-immigrant attitudes, latent anti-Muslim bias, or legitimate fears about the spreading of COVID-19, the EU is unlikely to relax measures to secure it borders with Turkey to prevent an influx of refugees. It might open its cheque book to help offset the costs of Turkey hosting the rising number of Syrian refugees, but welcoming massive numbers of refugees into Europe now is out of the question.