EU-Turkey deal is historic, if it sticks

EU-Turkey deal is historic, if it sticks

The deal agreed between the European Union and Turkey on Nov. 29 is historic – provided it sticks.

The EU has dangled the prospect that Turkey can join the Union, offered its citizens visa-free travel throughout most of the bloc and promised the government a chunk of cash in return for Ankara agreeing to stem the flow of migrants to Europe. Not all of the pact looks deliverable – but some big issues look closer to being addressed.

On the face of it, the agreement would seem to solve the biggest problem now facing many EU governments – the flood of refugees and economic migrants from Syria, Afghanistan and other countries, most of whom are entering the bloc from Turkey via Greece. At the same time, it gives Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan a boost when he faces hostility from his other neighbours – Syria, Iran and especially Russia, after Turkey shot down one of its jets last week.

Under the most optimistic scenario, the pact could mark the reorientation of Turkey back towards Europe and the values of liberal democracy, after a period during which it turned towards the Middle East and Erdogan became increasingly authoritarian.

In recent years, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly and the independence of the judiciary have been curtailed, according to a report on Turkey by the European Commission published this month. Corruption is widespread, as is discrimination against women, gays and other groups, the report said.

The carrot of joining the EU could be an inducement for Turkey to address these problems. If so, that would be good for its economy. Meanwhile, a stable and democratic Turkey would be a buffer for Europe against migration, jihadism and instability in the Middle East.

The snag is that the long-term goal of Turkey joining the EU may not be reached, while the immediate deal of goodies in return for controlling migration may not be implemented.

Each of the EU’s 28 countries has a veto on Turkey joining the club. Given the rise of right-wing nationalism, it seems implausible that all will agree to admit a country with 78 million mostly Muslim people. The only thing agreed at the Brussels summit was to open another of the many “chapters” of a negotiation that has already been going on for a decade.

Meanwhile, it doesn’t seem at all likely that Erdogan will make the political reforms necessary to get into the EU, as that would loosen his grip on power just as he is trying to tighten it further. Although the EU has recently been muted in its criticism of the Turkish leader, it probably won’t abandon its principles entirely.

As for the immediate deal, Turkey seems unlikely to deliver as much as the EU wants in terms of stemming the flow of migrants. Although European countries expect a big drop in numbers, Turkey’s prime minister said after the summit that he couldn’t guarantee any fall at all.

There’s likely to be a lot of wrangling over precisely what Ankara has agreed to – in terms of making life more attractive for Syrians to stay in Turkey, fighting people smugglers and policing its sea border with Greece. Although the deal says EU countries will be able to send migrants back to Turkey, this does not apply to refugees – and so means that if Syrians and Afghans still manage to get to Europe, they would have to stay there. Only economic migrants would be returned.

The EU will also struggle to deliver its side of the bargain. There is already internal wrangling over where to find the first 3 billion euros that will be given to Turkey to look after refugees who stay there. That amounts to 40 percent of what Ankara has already spent on them.

Even more problematic, Turkey wants more money in future. Nothing has been agreed beyond a statement that the burden will be shared. But if the EU is supposed to find 40 percent of future costs, the bill could get quite high.

Germany and a group of eight other countries are also trying to put together a side deal that would involve them taking hundreds of thousands of refugees legally from Turkey so they don’t risk their lives with people smugglers on the high seas. But it’s unclear how easy it will be to persuade their people to agree to that or whether Turkey will stick to the main pact if they don’t.

Finally, citizens in many EU countries will balk at giving Turks visa-free travel from next October within the Schengen Area, which encompasses most of the bloc but not several countries including Britain. It will be especially hard to sell this in France, following the jihadi attacks in Paris.

The hardest places for Erdogan to give ground are rule of law and democracy. Those are only needed for the accession to the EU, which is a long-term plan. Fixing short-term problems then comes down to questions of cash and visa-free travel for Turks, which may be achievable. Despite all the reasons for skepticism, the EU and Turkey unquestionably need one another.

[Reuters Breakingviews]

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