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reflections

Jul 26, 2016 | 23:33 GMT

6 mins read

Turkey's Coup Puts Europe in an Awkward Spot

Turkey's Coup Puts Europe in an Awkward Spot
(JEFF J. MITCHELL/Getty Images)
It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared on Monday that the European Union has failed to make good on the promises it put forth in its recent immigration deal with Ankara. The statement came amid rumors that the European Commission cannot agree on how best to deal with Turkey, an argument that stands to shape the flow of migrants to the Continent for years to come. Some factions supposedly want to scale back the Continent's cooperation with the Turkish government because of the actions Ankara has taken since the country's failed July 15 coup attempt. Others reportedly believe that preserving the agreement, which was crafted to curb inflows of migrants to Europe, is crucial to keeping the immigration crisis from escalating. Similar debates are taking place within the European Union's core member states, most notably Germany, and how the dispute plays out will largely determine refugees' ability to seek haven in Europe in the future.

The immigration crisis, which peaked in the second half of 2015, threatened the European Union in several ways. It presented many EU members with the quandary of how to deal with the hundreds of thousands of people who were crossing their territories or requesting asylum. Many EU states responded by closing their borders and building fences, endangering the Schengen Agreement, which allows free passage among signatory countries, in the process. The crisis also exacerbated tensions among EU members: Countries in Northern Europe blamed their southern peers for failing to register migrants, while countries in Southern Europe accused their northern neighbors of lacking solidarity. Eastern Europe simply ignored plans to distribute migrants across the bloc. Perhaps the most important danger that the crisis posed, though, was the support it lent to Euroskeptic and anti-immigration parties across the Continent, increasing political uncertainty throughout Europe.

Turkey's position between Europe and Middle Eastern conflict zones, particularly Syria, made it a natural and indispensable partner for the Continent, which was desperate to stanch the stream of migrants. Ankara, in turn, saw cooperation on migration as an opportunity to make headway on its demands of Europe. And indeed, in late 2015 the European Union promised to give Turkey money, resume negotiations on its EU accession and lift visa restrictions on Turkish citizens visiting the bloc — all in exchange for Turkey's help in stopping migrants from reaching EU territory. Of course, reviving membership talks and implementing visa waivers are controversial issues in the European Union, since many members believe they would lead to more migration from Turkey itself — a country of some 75 million people, most of whom are Muslim. But considering the many problems that the immigration crisis had already spawned, making those promises to Ankara seemed like a reasonable price to pay.

And since the agreement entered into force in late March, it has been fairly successful, at least from Europe's perspective. The arrival of migrants in Greece has dropped steeply, from its monthly peak at 212,000 in October 2015 to roughly 1,500 in June. Granted, other factors, including the closure of borders along the Western Balkans migration route and stricter asylum laws in the biggest destination states, contributed to the decline. The deal did not put an end to political friction in the European Union, nor did it mitigate the threat to the Schengen Agreement. Likewise, it had no bearing on other migration routes, such as the central Mediterranean route that links North Africa with Southern Europe. Yet these realities aside, the agreement has considerably calmed political turmoil on the Continent, especially in Germany, where the government's popularity has improved after months of popular criticism of the way it managed the refugee situation

But a series of recent events have put the EU-Turkey deal in jeopardy. In the span of 10 days, France suffered a significant terrorist attack, Germany experienced several smaller attacks, and Turkey reeled from a coup attempt. Though the perpetrators in each of the European incidents had different motives and goals, they shared a common trait: All were either immigrants or the children of immigrants. This fact will do little to stem the rising tide of anti-immigrant sentiment in Europe. The attacks on train passengers in Wuerzburg, a woman in Reutlingen and spectators at a music festival in Ansbach are particularly worrisome because they were conducted by refugees or asylum seekers. Germany, which opened its borders to asylum seekers in August 2015, is especially concerned about the attacks' political repercussions.

Turkey's coup is equally unsettling for Berlin. Erdogan's crackdown on political rivals across Turkish society, whether in media, politics, academia or the military, will make it harder for EU institutions and governments to uphold their end of the migration deal. So far, the bloc has only sent money to Turkey — even then, it did so reluctantly — and Erdogan has complained that Turkey has received only between 1 million and 2 million of the 3 billion euros ($3.3 billion) that were promised. The rest of the agreement's terms will be even more difficult to honor. The resumption of accession talks was somewhat of an empty promise from the start, since opening talks is not the same as guaranteeing a resolution. Moreover, the most immediate issue, visa liberalization, remains the most controversial. In the wake of the failed coup, EU governments and technocrats have also asked Ankara to abandon its pledge to reintroduce the death penalty, on top of their previous requests to reform Turkish counterterrorism laws.

And so, Germany finds itself in the awkward position of both warning about the deteriorating rule of law in Turkey and defending Brussels' deal with Ankara. The recent attacks have made Berlin keener than ever to stop new asylum seekers from reaching the European Union. Yet despite being a key player in the negotiations with Turkey, even Germany may have trouble persuading the European Parliament, which has been highly critical of the Turkish government, to approve Ankara's visa waiver scheme.

A date has not been set for the debate on the visa program, but the European Parliament will probably discuss the issue when it resumes session in early September. In all likelihood, the legislature will delay its decision while EU members implement additional measures to restrict the conditions under which visa-free travel is allowed and ease its suspension in times of need. But at the end of the day, Europeans are not ready to deal with a renewed immigration crisis as they absorb the results of Britain's referendum.

This will give Erdogan a window to tighten his grip over Turkish politics before considering a rapprochement with the European Union. The president knows that he has leverage over Europe, but he also wants to preserve Turkey's trade, investment and political ties with the Continent. To that end, he will likely continue enforcing the immigration deal, even as he occasionally criticizes the bloc. Tension between Turkey and Europe will continue, however, and if antagonism between the two rises, it could set off a crisis the Europeans hoped they had left behind.

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