News analysis

Turkish leader playing hard ball in talks with EU

Erdogan seeks tough concessions from a Europe overwhelmed by refugee crisis

LONDON • European Union officials have offered Turkey a new package of economic and political inducements in return for cooperation in stemming the flood of refugees to Europe.

But Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has just concluded a visit to the EU's headquarters in Brussels, is demanding a higher price in exchange, including a broader strategic partnership between Europe and Turkey to bring an end to the war in Syria.

Mr Erdogan is in a vulnerable domestic position. His ruling Justice and Development Party failed to retain its overall parliamentary majority in June's general election and faces another ballot on Nov 1, with opinion polls indicating a similarly inconclusive result. Turkey's stellar economic performance also appears to be over, as foreign investment dries up and inflation rates rise.

However, the war in neighbouring Syria, and particularly Russia's intervention in that conflict, have also increased Turkey's strategic position, providing Mr Erdogan with some useful pressure levers on Europe. The overwhelming majority of the refugees who reach Europe through overland routes from the Middle East come via Turkey. And no permanent solution to the Syrian war is feasible without Turkey's cooperation.

European leaders are going out of their way to acknowledge Turkey's importance. On the eve of Mr Erdogan's Brussels visit, the EU temporarily shelved the publication of its regular report on Turkish domestic political developments, largely because this would have contained unflattering comments on his style of government.

And Nato, the US-led military alliance in Europe which also has its headquarters in Brussels, convened a special emergency meeting to reiterate its security obligations in response to recent Russian aircraft violations of Turkish national airspace: "I made clear that Nato remains strongly committed to Turkey's security," said Mr Jens Stoltenberg, Nato's secretary-general.

But the real focus of European leaders was on getting Mr Erdogan to agree to intercept the refugees streaming across its territory on their way to Europe.

Two proposals are on the table. The first offers Turkey up to €1 billion (S$1.6 billion) in grants in return for a Turkish commitment to at least register and fingerprint refugees crossing its territory.

That may sound innocuous, yet what it actually means is that, once these refugees are registered in Turkey, they can be returned to Turkey should their bid for asylum in Europe get rejected.

Largely in order to alleviate the burden which will fall on Turkey should it close the migrants' routes, the EU has also made a new, radical proposal: it will fund new refugee camps inside Turkey, and has pledged that, "eventually", up to half a million of the refugees in these camps will be admitted into Europe. There was also some talk on the joint policing of frontiers.

The Europeans argue this would provide for a fairer distribution of the burden: "Europe has to manage its borders better, but we expect Turkey to do the same," said EU president Donald Tusk.

But Mr Erdogan would have none of it. He rejected accusations that Turkey is content to move asylum- seekers elsewhere, reminding EU officials that his country hosts

2.2 million refugees from Syria and a further 200,000 from Iraq compared to only several hundred thousand in Europe.

Still, he did not reject the EU proposal outright, but instead upped his price. EU officials say Mr Erdogan asked for the eventual abolition of visa requirements on Turkish citizens, for a renewed impetus to Turkey's membership negotiations with the EU, and for the creation of "no-fly zones" inside Syria where refugees should be given protection from war.

"I want to remind you once more that the reason for the refugee crisis is the war in Syria and the (Bashar) al-Assad regime, which has virtually launched a state terror," Mr Erdogan said.

But the Europeans are in no position to move seriously on any of these demands. Suggesting the imminent abolition of visa requirements on Turkey's 75 million-strong population would be tantamount to political suicide for any EU leader; at best, the EU can only offer a hint that this would happen in the future. And agreeing to no-fly zones inside Syria would be difficult without Russia's agreement, and without a deeper military commitment from the United States to the Syrian war.

EU governments will return to the subject of migration tomorrow, when they host a meeting of officials from southern European nations, which Turkey will also attend. But it is clear that, at least for the moment, Mr Erdogan believes Europe needs him more than he needs Europe.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 07, 2015, with the headline 'Turkish leader playing hard ball in talks with EU'. Print Edition | Subscribe