President Erdogan of Turkey is travelling to Brussels today (March 9, 2020) for showdown talks with the EU over the current migrant crisis. Ankara is expected to demand hundreds of millions of euros from the EU in exchange for stopping the flood of migrants and refugees attempting to enter the EU from Turkey.
President Erdogan may also pursue looser visa restrictions and lower barriers to trade in his meeting with Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, this evening.
European leaders are under pressure to secure a deal in light of Turkey’s surprise withdrawal from the previous deal struck in 2016. This deal saw Turkey close the entry routes for migrants into the EU bloc in return for EU aid, funding and access to the Shengen passport-free zone for Turkish nationals.
In response to the killing of 33 Turkish soldiers in Syria after an attack by the Syrian government’s forces just over a fortnight ago, Turkey sought international support from the European Union for its operations in Syria. When this was not forthcoming, the Turkish government ordered the opening of its borders with Greece and actively encouraged the four million displaced people within Turkey’s borders to move on to Europe.
Over the past two weeks, Greek border guards have repelled more than 38,000 migrants, mainly from Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan, many transported to the frontier in buses laid on by Turkish town and city councils.
Tensions remain high and the EU will be keen to ensure that a resolution is reached, with memories of the 2015 migrant crisis – which led to the deaths of 3,711 migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean sea – still keenly felt across the continent. However, EU diplomats are also reluctant to give in to what many have described as blackmail.
The EU have accused Turkey of engineering the crisis, using migrants as leverage in negotiations. Following a closed-door meeting in Brussels last week, a diplomat told Reuters:
“It is so dishonest of Erdogan. We cannot let ourselves be blackmailed so any new money must not come too soon. But we will probably have to pay eventually. What else can we do?”
On Sunday 8 March, 2020, Johannes Hahn, the EU Budget Commissioner, said that President Erdogan was using the clashes at the border as a distraction from his problems at home, including a volatile currency and PKK party losses of Istanbul and Ankara in municipal elections.
Mr Hahn told Der Standard, an Austrian paper:
“It’s the standard reflex in response to all this: you seek an external opponent… Of course [the flow of refugees] is being steered.”
President Erdogan has threatened to “open the doors” to hundreds of thousands more migrants and refugees if Europe does not agree to his demands. He argued that the EU has failed to uphold their end of the 2016 deal and were holding back on providing the full €6billion in aid promised.
However there is the potential for some form of agreement to be reached. Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, and Stef Blok, the Dutch foreign minister, have signalled that they are prepared to support a humanitarian “safe zone” around the Syrian city of Idlib which was one of the Turkish demands.
Mr Hahn has also indicated that another €500 million in aid could be freed up by the EU. However, he also hinted that it may be given to Lebanon or Jordan over Turkey if President Erdogan remained intransigent.
In the absence of a deal, tensions on the border remain high. The Greek authorities have released images over the weekend that show Turkish forces using an armoured personnel carrier to tear down border fencing in the Kastanies region.
Separate videos show hundreds of migrants aiding the demolition attempt and Turkish soldiers can be seen firing blanks, stun grenades and tear gas into the Greek side.
Since assuming power last Summer, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the Greek prime minister, has been less willing to compromise on non-European migration than was his left-wing predecessor. Last week his government announced that it would stop accepting new asylum applications for a month. At the weekend Mr Mitsotakis declared the refugee deal with Turkey was “dead”.
Speaking to CNN, Mitsotakis said:
“We are not dealing with a migration or a refugee problem. It’s a deliberate attempt by Turkey to use refugees and migrants as political pawns in order to pursue its own political interests.”