Europe: Go Big or Go Home

by John Feffer

Europe has a deal on the table to address the current refugee crisis.

This week, European leaders are gathering to discuss the particulars. Although the rough outline has already come under some withering criticism for being incompatible with international law, it may represent the best effort to achieve some consensus among an EU membership that has wildly divergent views.

The proposed deal involves three major elements.

The first is a swap. For every migrant currently stuck in Greece who is returned to Turkey, a place will be made in the EU for one Syrian migrant now in a Turkish refugee camp.

Then there’s the money. Turkey will get the $3.3 billion that the EU pledged earlier to help with the refugee crisis. And Ankara is angling for another $3.3 billion to cover costs through 2018 for border control, cooperation with Greece, and accommodating refugees. By some estimates, Turkey has already spent more than $7.7 billion on addressing the crisis. That’s fully half of what the entire EU has spent.

And the third part involves Turkey’s relationship with the EU. As part of the deal, Turkish citizens would be able to travel visa-free around Europe — a perk never before denied to an EU membership candidate. More controversially, discussions around Turkey’s accession to the EU, which have been in process for nearly three decades, would begin again.

Virtually every element of this deal has raised concerns — from human rights activists upset at the forcible removal of refugees from Greece to Euroskeptics aghast at the possibility of Turkey becoming an EU member any time soon. But Europe has to come up with some solutions — not only for the current refugees flooding into Greece and Turkey, but also for the next waves that will come now that the weather is improving. Meanwhile, the violence continues in Syria and Iraq, and refugees in Lebanon remain in what amount to miserable holding cells.

Greece is struggling with its own economic problems, so it’s unrealistic to expect it to single-handedly absorb the 43,000 refugees currently stuck in the country. Turkey, which already accommodates more than 3 million Syrian refugees, obviously needs resources to handle the flow. And the EU already agreed in the fall to visa-free travel for Turkish citizens — this deal would only make it happen sooner.

The real problem with the deal isn’t the relocation of refugees from Greece to Turkey, where they don’t generally face risk of persecution. Rather, will the EU actually be able to follow through on its promise to find a home for those Syrians in Turkey according to the one-for-one formula when it’s managed so far to handle only 600 of the 66,000 refugees in Greece it promised in September to relocate? Germany took in over a million refugees in 2015, and the backlash is building. And recalcitrant EU members — Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic — show no signs of sudden generosity.

But the ultimate sticking point in the deal is its most ambiguous part: Turkey’s accession to the EU. The reopening of these negotiations in many ways couldn’t come at a worse time. The British are planning a referendum on their own membership in the near future, and the prospect of Turkey coming on board might tip the balance in favor of the supporters of Brexit. Cyprus has threatened to veto any refugee pact that accelerates accession without Turkey recognizing its nationhood.

Meanwhile, developments in Turkey make accession seem a remote possibility. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been on an increasingly autocratic trajectory.

He’s been attempting to concentrate more power in the presidential office. He’s waged battle against journalists, with the government most recently seizing the offices of the newspaper Zaman, which often printed articles critical of Erdogan’s policies. And he’s both reignited the war against the Kurdish population in the southeast of the country and taken aim at Kurdish militias in Syria as well. The bombings in recent months in Ankara and Istanbul represent blowback from this government attempt to wipe out Kurdish opposition in both its legal and paramilitary forms.

And yet, despite all of these reasons for leaving EU membership out of the current refugee deal, getting the accession talks back on track has never been more important.

Europe, you see, has been at this crossroads once before. At that time, in early 1990, it made a fatal mistake. And the cost in lives and resources was enormous.

Europe now has a second chance. Will it blow it again?

The Yugoslav Mistake

By the beginning of 1990, Communism had crumbled throughout East-Central Europe, and the mandarins in Brussels were already beginning to think about expanding the European Community’s borders eastward.

Expansion in that direction, however, was not going to be easy, and not simply because of the economic gap between east and west. There were already hints of potential violence in the former Soviet bloc. In Romania, for instance, the revolution turned bloody in December 1989, and tensions were brewing between ethnic Romanians and ethnic Hungarians.

But it was Yugoslavia where the potential for conflict seemed greatest. Serbs and Albanians were squaring off over Kosovo. A strong nationalist movement was resurfacing in Croatia, and ethnic Serbs in that republic were pushing for their own autonomy. Slovenes, too, were itching for more independence.

Prior to the revolutionary events of 1989, Yugoslavia was widely considered the first in line from the region for membership in the European Community (later the European Union). It’s not inconceivable that European leaders could have offered federal Yugoslavia a timetable for accession in early 1990.

That didn’t happen, of course.

Instead, the region went through four successive wars: over Slovenian independence, between Croatia and Serbia, over Bosnia, and between Serbia and Kosovo. It’s difficult to calculate the costs of those wars. In the Bosnian conflict, for instance, nearly 100,000 people died. Sarajevo alone suffered 14 billion euros of damage. And the bill for the brief war in and around Kosovowas $100-150 billion — including the air war, dealing with the refugees, rebuilding Kosovo, paying for the peacekeepers, and helping the surrounding region recover economically.

In comparison, a program of economic assistance to Yugoslavia, to help it approach European standards, would have been a bargain in comparison. In 1992, the total assistance going to Poland and Hungary under the PHARE program was just a little over $1 billion. Total capital inflow to East-Central Europe in 1991 was less than $10 billion. Between 1990 and 2003, total development assistance for Romania was $4.6 billion.

In other words, the costs of the wars ran into the hundreds of billions of dollars (at least). The costs of bringing Yugoslavia up to the level of the rest of Europe was only in the tens of billions of dollars. And that doesn’t take into account the loss of life.

Yugoslavia was in many ways a weak candidate for EU membership, but it was no weaker than the other East-Central European countries. Unlike its neighbors in the region, Yugoslavia didn’t experience a political upheaval in 1989. But it did hold elections in 1990, as part of fulfilling the democratization requirements connected to the minimal aid package that Europe extended to the country. Those elections, however, didn’t take place at the federal level. Rather, elections in each republic favored the only parties that managed to prepare in time — namely the nationalist parties, which only accelerated the fragmentation of the country. A timetable for accession could have prioritized democratic elections at the Yugoslav level, which would have provided political legitimacy to federal institutions.

Accession could have addressed other issues as well. There were demands for greater autonomy in the republics, but those could have been dealt with as part of the decentralization requirements. There was growing anger within the country over the economic disparities among the republics, but the economic rewards of membership could have served to divert the attention of the population from the agendas of nationalist extremists. Indeed, Europe could have used membership as leverage to induce positive change, just as it delayed accession for Slovakia over its authoritarian turn under Vladimir Meciar, or with Romania over its policies on orphans.

Membership in the EU is no panacea. It can’t solve all problems in a country (indeed, as with Greece, it might accentuate problems). And it might not have prevented the outbreak of violence in Yugoslavia or kept the country together. But chances are that it could have radically diminished the level of violence associated with nationalist aspirations.

Europe can’t pretend to ignore what’s happening in Turkey as if it’s taking place on another continent. For better or for worse, Turkey is part of Europe, and the refugee crisis has only underscored that fact.

Talking Turkey

When Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in Turkey in 2003, joining the EU was high on their agenda.

The country had formally applied for membership in 1987 (it had missed an opportunity to apply along with Greece in the late 1970s). The AKP, despite its roots in a conservative Islamist tradition, was a party of modernizers eager to boost economic growth, improve the country’s relations with its neighbors, and reduce the power that the military had long held over political institutions. Membership in the EU offered what seemed to be a shortcut to achieve those goals. Negotiations around accession began in 2005.

At first, the discussions seemed to go well, and Turkey implemented various reforms to get its house in order. But there have long been pockets of serious resistance within the EU to the idea of Turkey as a member — because of its size, the nature of its political institutions, and, most importantly, the adherence of a majority of its population to Islam. The incorporation of Turkey represented a challenge to all those who continued to think of Europe as a fundamentally Christian entity. The obstacles that some European countries placed in the way of Turkey’s accession coincided with a slowdown in Turkey’s own internal reforms and the dimming enthusiasm of Turks for the enterprise.

So, why do Erdogan and the AKP suddenly have renewed interest in EU membership? Some critics imagine that the Turkish government simply wants to use European desperation over the refugee crisis to buy EU silence over Ankara’s crackdown on the press, war against the Kurds, and efforts to create a presidentialist political system.

But that doesn’t make sense. The AKP knows full well that the accession process will involve the EU more deeply in Turkish politics, not less, and Brussels will use its leverage to demand significant reforms before the process can proceed. Those reforms will involve some rather sensitive issues, such as decentralization (including the predominantly Kurdish areas of the southeast), freedom of the press, and the rule of law.

Here’s a more likely set of reasons for Turkey’s renewed interest in EU membership. The Turkish economy averaged 7.2 percent growth between 2002 and 2006. After the global financial crisis, growth rates were near double digits in 2010 and 2011. Since then, however, the economy has cooled considerably, and growth for 2015 dropped to around 3 percent. The reentry of Iran into the global economy, the impact of falling energy prices, and the spillover effects of war in the Middle East have all made the Turkish economy more vulnerable to global trends.

Turkey’s good-neighbor policy of the 2000s has also hit a wall on virtually every side. Relations with Russia have soured as a result of the Syrian war. The winter of discontent that followed the Arab Spring has jeopardized Turkey’s relations with a broad swath of northern Africa and the Middle East. Reconciliation with Armenia has stalled. The Cyprus issue has yet to be resolved. Tensions have even increased with Washington over Ankara’s attacks on the same Kurdish forces in Syria that the United States backs.

Turkey is boxed in by the refugee problem, its cooling economy, and the failures of its good-neighbor policy. For economic and geopolitical reasons, the EU is looking like a more attractive option to help Turkey out of its predicament.

But Europe is boxed in, too. The flow of refugees challenges the EU’s commitments to principles of human rights and social welfare. Euroskeptic parties are gaining at the polls. Austerity policies are tearing at the fabric of countries on the periphery. The newest members in East-Central Europe are bridling at what they consider interference from Brussels. Economic growth has been elusive. Where once countries were clamoring to get into the EU, now they are eyeing the exit.

Bringing Turkey into the mix would be a way of getting out of this box. Given the size of its economy and its geostrategic location, Turkey could reenergize the EU at a time when the body is so desperately in need of a blood transfusion. It could also be a way of getting out in front of a number of problems — refugees, the war taking place with the Kurds, the relationship between Christianity and Islam — in a way that Europe failed to do with Yugoslavia 25 years ago. Accession can help stabilize Turkey before it descends further into autocracy and war.

It’s not an entirely risk-free strategy. The Islamophobes will have a field day. However, as long as the process proceeds at a deliberate pace and produces real results inside Turkey, the critics will have nothing to fall back on except their own intolerance.

Imagine that we’re at halftime in a game where the EU, after a strong opening, just fell behind in the first half. The coach stands before all the members of the squad to deliver a rousing speech. “Coming up is our make-or-break moment,” the coach says to the fractious and demoralized crew. “From here out, the EU had better go big or we might as well go home.”

Turkey is the big running back sitting on the bench. It’s time to bring Turkey into the game.

Photo: Syrian refugees by Jordi Bernabeu Farrús via Flickr. Crossposted with Foreign Policy In Focus.

John Feffer

John Feffer is the director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies. He is also the author, most recently, of Aftershock: A Journey into Eastern Europe's Broken Dreams (Zed Books). He is also the author of the dystopian Splinterlands trilogy (Dispatch Books). He is a former Open Society fellow, PanTech fellow, and Scoville fellow, and his articles have appeared in The New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Review of Books, Salon, and many other publications.


One Comment

  1. Turkey hopes to dump its merchandise to Europe as the Arab countries have closed the door and Iran is developing its own industry that will make cheap Turkish good unwanted. Erdogan also hopes to use the visa-free to Europe to decrease the frustrated Kurdish population by sending them legally to Europe.
    On medium term Europe will pay a heavy price for that deal..

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