An immediate backlash followed the interview that Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Cavusoglu gave to the German newspaper Bild the day before German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s visit to Turkey on 24 January to discuss the future of the EU-Turkey Statement as well as the situations in Libya and Syria. At the core of the controversy was Cavusoglu’s criticism against the EU for not keeping its promises in the context of the EU-Turkey Statement: incomplete financial aid, no progress in the modernisation of the Customs Union, and not opening new chapters in the accession negotiations. “Already only for these reasons”, Cavusoglu noted, “Turkey could have opened the borders. We have the right to do this, but we have not done it.”
For Ankara, threats to open the borders have increasingly become a not-so-uncommon diplomatic practice that has led to public anxiety in Germany. The important question here is, however, not whether Ankara would halt the Statement or not. The signals that it is sending to the EU are clear: Ankara wants to keep the cooperation over migration and border security intact. From the perspective of the ruling elites in Ankara, this makes sense for a couple of reasons. First and foremost, Turkey needs the financial and logistical support of the EU to continue improving its capacity for the social and economic participation of refugees into Turkish society. Turkey currently is hosting around 3.5 million Syrian refugees and approximately 600,000 non-Syrian refugees – the largest number of refugees compared to any country in the world. Most are likely to stay, not only because Syria remains in conflict, but also because the decision to return becomes more difficult once children start going to school.
Turkey–EU partnership: Transactionalism
Second, the EU-Turkey Statement is one of the only remaining instruments for Turkey (and also Europe) to continue its partnership. The importance of the Statement has arguably become even greater, especially since the EU’s General Affairs Council decided in June 2018 that accession negotiations with Turkey were effectively frozen. Despite the common perception abroad about Turkey’s increasing level of de-Westernisation, according to a recent survey conducted by Kadir Has University, 51 per cent of those who were surveyed stated that they supported EU membership for Turkey. Except among the supporters of the ultra-nationalist Nationalist Action Party (MHP), more than half of the AKP, CHP, HDP, and Iyi Party constituencies support Turkey’s EU membership.
Last, but not least, the refugee card as a bargaining tool is too precious for Turkey to relinquish. Given the anti-immigrant sentiments in Europe and the lack of unity among member states over a common asylum policy, the EU remains limited to externalisation policies, that is, to outsourcing migration governance to third countries. This naturally comes at the cost of prioritising transactionalism over rule-based cooperation. Turkey is aware of this. In fact, this awareness lies at the core of the controversy that Ankara deliberately created prior to its bilateral and multilateral meetings with European leaders – in an effort to get the most out of the negotiations. The controversy about the transfer of EU funds should also be interpreted in this context. Part of this controversy stems from disagreements over how and when the payments are made. The EU transfers funds on a project basis and in phases. Projects that are contracted as part of the first €3 billion will be complete by 2021, and those that are contracted as part of the second €3 billion will be done by 2025. By the end of 2019, both tranches had been combined, all operational funds were committed, €4.7 billion was contracted, and more than €3.2 billion was disbursed.
Modernisation of the Customs Union: A chance for re-emphasising issues of rule of law?
Given these factors, it is in Ankara’s interest to continue the EU-Turkey cooperation over migration management and border security. The situation seems to be not so different for the EU either, especially because the member states are still divided about common asylum policy and responsibility-sharing. In the likely continuation of the Statement, however, the EU should implement political conditionality on firmer grounds. Two issues are important. The first is that the EU should remind Turkey that the continuation of the Statement is dependent on Turkey’s commitment to the non-refoulement principle under international law. To this end, the EU should consider taking an active role in supporting cooperation with UNHCR and human rights organisations in monitoring the deportation allegations against Turkey. The second is that the EU should also consider the possibility that a stronger emphasis in a renewed Statement on the modernisation of the Customs Union might be an effective instrument to closely link the implementation of the Statement to issues of rule of law.