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Desperation Drives E.U. and Turkey Into a New Embrace

Turkish PM Davotoglu (c.) flanked by EU Council President Tusk (l.) and Commission President Juncker (r.)Turkish PM Davotoglu (c.) flanked by EU Council President Tusk (l.) and Commission President Juncker (r.)
Turkish PM Davotoglu (c.) flanked by EU Council President Tusk (l.) and Commission President Juncker (r.)Photograph by Tashana Batista — EU COUNCIL

Desperation makes for strange bedfellows.

On the one hand, the European Union, whose attempts to stop the biggest movement of migrants in Europe since World War 2 have failed dismally. On the other, Turkey, which finds itself under sudden and potentially acute economic pressure from Russia after shooting down one of its warplanes last week.

After weeks of behind-the-scenes haggling, the two sides formally agreed a deal Sunday that will see the E.U. pay Turkey an initial €3 billion ($3.3 billion) to help it stop the flood of refugees and other migrants ‘not requiring international protection.’ Turkey had asked before the meeting for that amount to be paid every year, but the two sides left the issue of any future payments open.

“We do not expect anyone to guard our borders for us,” E.U. Council president Donald Tusk said after them meeting. “That can and should only be done by Europeans. But we expect a major step towards changing the rules of the game when it comes to stemming the migration flow that is coming to the E.U. via Turkey.”

A more radical outcome of the summit was the decision to revive talks on letting Turkey join the E.U., a process that has been effectively moribund for years.

The irony is acute. Above all, it was popular hostility to Turkish migration into the E.U. that led the bloc to effectively suspend accession talks in 2010, although the formal reason was concerns about Turkey’s worsening record on human rights and judicial issues. If anything, the latter has deteriorated even further since 2010, as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has cracked down on political opposition and dissenting media.

But the flow of refugees and other migrants, largely from Syria, but also from Afghanistan, Pakistan and other countries, has pushed concerns about Turkish immigration and domestic repression way down the list of European concerns. Of much more concern now is the near-collapse of the E.U.’s internal border-free regime, as one member state after another has reinstated border checks and, in some cases, built physical barriers to stop illegal immigration. E.U. Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker warned last week that if the “Schengen” agreement on open internal borders falls apart, then Europe’s monetary union would soon follow.

One of the first ‘chapters’ regarding Turkey’s accession to be revived will be an agreement on visa-free travel to the E.U. for Turkish citizens. The two sides said they will try to launch formal talks on this within a year (on the implicit conditions that Turkey meets conditions on tightening its borders in the east to Asian migrants). That development comes only two days after Russia unilaterally suspended its bilateral agreement with Turkey on visa-free travel.

“Today is a historic day in our accession process to the EU,” Turkey’s Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told reporters on arrival. “I am grateful to all European leaders for this new beginning.”