Forging unity by force of crisis

There is hardly any element that is not contentious or controversial in the agreement that the European Union (EU) has struck with Turkey to stem the flow of thousands of mostly Syrian migrants and refugees on to its shores. It could not have been otherwise, given the intra-EU divisions on a collective approach to the current refugee crisis and staunch domestic opposition to Ankara’s entry into the EU. Despite Turkey’s long-standing bid for membership in the bloc, bolstered by its strong secular, liberal and democratic credentials and geographic contiguity, ties between Ankara and Brussels have not been the most cordial in recent years. Turkey’s record on human rights under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, exemplified by the systematic suppression of freedom of expression and ill-treatment of the country’s Kurdish minorities, has drawn strong condemnation from EU leaders. Now the bloc has promised once again to revive negotiations on a specific aspect of Ankara’s protracted accession process, in return for the admission of Syrian refugees from Greece. But the motivation to open talks on a relatively minor element of the package, frozen at one point, is itself meant to paper over a more fundamental objection, from Cyprus, to Turkey’s EU membership. Nicosia has vetoed EU-entry talks unless and until Ankara accords formal recognition to the Greek-Cypriot administration. That is seen to be critical for the reunification prospects of the island state, divided during the 1974 war with Turkey. Another curious component of the deal is the EU decision to advance the date for the liberalisation of visas to Turkish nationals. The concession comes at a time when the EU’s Schengen passport-free travel zone, the most visible symbol of the founding principles of the Union, is already under considerable strain as a consequence of the refugee crisis. Notable in this regard are recent unilateral moves by Austria and Hungary to seal borders along the Balkans, not without causing some embarrassment to Berlin, but intended to contain the fallout of Germany’s more accommodative stance on migration.

Then there is the decision whereby every new migrant reaching Greece via the Aegean Sea would be turned over to Turkey, in exchange for Ankara transferring one to the EU but with the total subject to a limit. Human rights groups have criticised the move as being both immoral and illegal. Athens has to contend with the fresh logistics and administrative challenges of turning back migrants on top of an already explosive situation. For Ankara, the difficulties centre on its readiness to extend protection for migrants from other nationalities, in addition to Syrians, on the lines of the Geneva Conventions. This is an area where the EU would tread cautiously in view of its strained relations with Turkey in recent years. If the agreement is to be received more favourably than it was when sealed, the parties would have to display sagacity in their diplomatic dealings, and sensitivity on the humanitarian front during its implementation.

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