Briefing on the Refugee Readmission Agreement


Turkey uses threat of cancelling Refugee Readmission Agreement as leverage over EU

Turkey is using the threat of cancelling its Refugee Readmission Agreement with the EU, which would create chaos on Europe’s south eastern border, as leverage over Brussels and Berlin and to boost domestic support.

  • The Readmission Agreement is under renewed pressure as refugee flows have picked back up and Greek infrastructure is at breaking point.
  • Ankara knows that stemming refugee flows is a hugely sensitive political issue in Europe, as the far right makes increasing headway, giving Ankara leverage.
  • Turkey-EU relations are now characterised by mutual antagonism in the pursuit of concessions.
  • Ankara does not necessarily want to cancel the deal, but acting tough towards the EU plays well domestically for the AKP.

The EU-Turkey Refugee Readmission Agreement (henceforth: the Deal) is under renewed pressure. Since July’s failed coup, refugee flows out of Turkey have increased after having dropped with the initial implementation of the Deal. Fearing instability, refugees are leaving Turkey, while Turkish security apparatus, usually employed in stopping refugees, has been diverted in the hunt for coup conspirators. Greek capacity for receiving refugees is at breaking point. And once again, visa immunity for Turkish citizens, one of the cornerstones of the Deal, has been delayed, as Turkey fails to meet several requirements.

Amid this, last week, EU Minister Omer Celik and subsequently Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus both implied Turkey could cancel its Deal with the EU if visa immunity was not introduced for its citizens. A day prior to Celik’s comments, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu had spoken with First Vice President of the European Commission on the subject. Ankara does not necessarily want to cancel the Deal but it knows it has the upper hand and therefore may be able to extract concessions or more money.

Refugee flows remain a sensitive political issue across Europe. Germany’s ruling Christian Democratic Union (CDU), for example, has suffered losses to the anti-mass migration Alternative for Germany (AFD). The Deal was a way for Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel to address these domestic concerns. Without this, chaos could break out on Europe’s south eastern border and refugee numbers would increase again.

Visa immunity is a comparatively far less important issue for voters in Turkey. The EU is hesitant around granting visa immunity, due to the same anti-migrant sentiment that motivated the Deal, especially during the current crackdowns in Turkey. Turkey, however, appears willing to host refugees. Consequently, Berlin has more to lose than Ankara. Turkey has the power to flood the EU with refugees, giving Ankara immense political leverage. Ankara’s claim that fighting in North West Iraq could create another 1 million refugees is a tacit warning to the EU.

The EU plays tough with Turkey too. The EU insists on Turkey changing its anti-terror legislation, an area where Ankara is unlikely to budge. The two sides appear at a deadlock over the issue, characteristic of the current cycle of Turkey-EU relations, whereby the two sides engage in mutual antagonism in the pursuit of concessions.

These comments by Turkish ministers about cancelling the Deal were largely aimed at a domestic audience. Acting tough towards the EU plays well domestically for the Turkish government, especially amid the increased anti-Western sentiment post-coup. The AKP uses the issue of visa immunity as a way to paint Turkey domestically as the honourable but wronged party in these negotiations, standing up to the callous EU.

Ankara seeks concessions and wishes to appear powerful to its base. Having already accepted the payment for the Deal, Ankara will likely retain the Deal but will drag as many concessions as possible from the EU, aware of Brussels and Berlin’s desperation. With Ankara doubling down on its anti-terror legislation and purges, publically the EU’s biggest sticking point, and with European fears of a Turkish influx, visa immunity seems unlikely. Ankara’s continued very public indignation concerning the EU’s failure to provide visa immunity will likely lead it at some point to a reckoning on the issue.


Further reading and comments…

We spoke to Gerald Knaus, Founding Chairman of the European Stability Initiative, credited with inspiring the EU-Turkey Agreement, who told us: “The key with readmission is not really whether Turkey cancels it, but whether it makes it work. Turkey had a readmission agreement with Greece for a decade, but it never worked… The EU-Turkey readmission agreement was always less important than getting Turkey and Greece to cooperate to implement the agreement that was already in place”

We also spoke with Laura Batalla Adam, Secretary General of the European Parliament Friends of Turkey, who recently produced the report, ‘The Refugee Card in EU-Turkey Relations: A Necessary but Uncertain Deal’, in which she writes: “After years of stalled negotiations, the sudden re-energisation of accession talks risks further undermining an already fragile bond if it will not be able to finally deliver”

27 October 2016

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