How close has Turkey suddenly become?

Ankara helping out with the refugee crisis could lead to an earlier EU entry. But is that wise?

 

Angela Merkel’s recent one-day visit to Ankara sparked huge controversy. What was said between her and Turkey’s prime minister Ahmet Davutoğlu triggered criticisms of all sorts, particularly in Germany, from both the right – as you’d expect – and from the left.

The German prime minister openly asked Turkey to help stem the flow of migrants. As ‘compensation’ for the humanitarian effort, Merkel put more money on the table (Ankara has asked the EU to cough up €3bn for handling the refugee crisis) plus the introduction of visa-free travel for Turks visiting the EU, starting in 2016.

Remarkably, but not entirely surprisingly, she also pledged to push forward Ankara’s EU membership talks. A change of heart? Merkel isn’t afraid of inching away from her party, the Christian Democratic Union, whose support has plummeted to 37 per cent according to the latest polls.

Turkey has accepted 2.5 million refugees from Syria and northern Iraq. One of Merkel’s criteria is to keep people close to their home country to avoid embarking on perilous journeys. In this respect, her reconciliatory strategy makes a lot of pragmatic sense. In theory. In practice, it doesn’t.

Interviewed by the Guardian, Cengiz Aktar, professor for EU relations at Istanbul’s Bahçeşehir University said:

“The EU must be dreaming. How could Turkey be considered a ‘safe country’? Besides all the other human rights issues at the moment, Turkey does not even have a full-fledged refugee policy…This is why so many Syrians want to leave in the first place.”

Analysts from Germany’s European Stability Initiative, a think tank advocating unconventional solutions to European crises, begged to differ and welcomed Merkel’s proposals: in their view these represent the single best opportunity to address mass migration on a humongous scale.

In an interview with Die Zeit, the institute’s director and political scientist Gerald Knaus added:

“I do not believe in a mass exodus of Turks. In the past few years the trend went the other way; especially from Germany more Turks immigrated to Turkey than did immigrate to Germany…The only danger that I see is if the situation in Southeast Turkey would descend into a full blown war like in the 90s.”

Another question is how much do Merkel and the EU worry about Erdoğan’s awful attitude towards legitimate dissent. No change, no entry: this should be made very clear.

Writing in the aftermath of the recent bombing in the capital, which have deepened Turkey’s political rifts, Der Spiegel’s correspondent Maximilian Popp claimed that “[because] HDP co-organized the demonstration in Ankara, the victims of the terrorist attack can expect little sympathy from the government”. HDP, an alliance between Kurdish and left-wing parties, received 13 per cent support in the last general election meaning that the AK party lost its absolute majority.

And it’s not just that, of course. Reporters without Borders ranks press freedom in Turkey 149th. Journalists get singled out for tweeting the ‘wrong’ stuff and are made snappily redundant overnight. “Freedom of speech is over,” wrote Mehveş Evin in Die Zeit, providing evidence on how several Turkish journalists get systematically bullied by the current government.

“Constitutional guarantees of freedom of the press and expression [in Turkey] are only partially upheld in practice, undermined by restrictive provisions in the criminal code and the Anti-Terrorism Act,” argued Freedom House’s Jennifer Dunham just over a year ago.

Making sure that score improves a bit should also be made a priority before the final EU entry phase. With Italy – a founding member – standing at 73, the overall bar is low anyway. But still…

Turkey is one of Europe’s biggest hot potatoes ever. There’s no easy way of handling it. Anyone looking for shortcuts should be extremely wary. Including Merkel.

Alessio Colonnelli also contributes to openDemocracy, Shifting Grounds and Euro Crisis/LSE. He holds a combined B.A./M.A. in languages and literary translation from Padua University

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