The continued progress of the Turkey migration deal shines a rather unflattering light on the state of the modern European Union. When Merkel and Erdogan reached an agreement back in March, I warned that:
Ankara has the EU over a barrel. The chaos caused by the migration crisis has spread from the streets into the corridors of the EU institutions, which suddenly find that all their high-flown rhetoric about Schengen, free movement and abolishing internal borders counts for very little in practice. Turkey has realised the obvious: that it can demand a high price for its co-operation in stopping refugees and other migrants crossing the Aegean, or failing that it can extort a high price by threatening to effectively wave even more migrants through. Erdogan is not known for passing up opportunities to get what he wants, and he has grabbed the chance eagerly.
It was predictable that Ankara would demand a lot in return for saving the EU from its migrant crisis. Equally predictable, for anyone who has watched Erdogan for more than five minutes, was the fact that the Turkish Government would then try to see how far it could push its luck.
Behold, therefore, today’s Times:
Seventy-five million Turks will move a giant step closer to visa-free access to continental Europe tomorrow, even though Ankara has yet to meet a series of demands from Brussels. The European Commission will propose that Turks receive the travel concession at the start of July, a key part of the deal under which Turkey has agreed to take back all migrants entering Greece illegally. However, Turkey is yet to meet all 72 legal and political criteria set out by Brussels as a condition of the relaxed travel rules.
Turkey appears to have reflected on the enthusiasm of the EU to strike a deal, and realised that if Brussels is that desperate then they might be able to secure their price without having to fulfil their part of the bargain.
Which parts of the deal are unfulfilled? Inevitably, the missing elements include measures to soften Turkey’s crackdown on minority and opposition groups, working better with Cyprus and introducing biometric security measures on passports.
Erdogan knows his hand is strong, and the EU’s hand is weak – and he shows every sign of making the most of it.
This development has three serious implications for Brussels and the EU project.
First, security. It was always a dicey proposition to effectively open a free movement zone which stretches from Calais to the porous Turkish/Syrian border. There is already regular terrorist traffic – of ISIS and other flavours - back and forth across the line. Some terrorists have already disguised themselves as refugees and made their way through to Turkey into the EU. Making the journey easier and safer for those who seek to commit atrocities was a huge risk already, and doing so without improving the security of Turkish passports would make it even worse.
Second, liberalisation. One of the EU’s (few) legitimate boasts was once that it played a role in democratising and liberalising its new members. In the 1990s, that was for the most part true – various Eastern European nations strove to improve in the hope of securing membership and the development subsidies that came with it. The Turkey deal shows that idea is dead. Days before it was first agreed, the Turkish government seized control of a leading opposition newspaper, confident in the knowledge that Brussels needed their help more than they needed Brussels’ approval. Now even the relatively modest requirements in that deal are being ignored. As Henry Hill wrote last month, the EU is abandoning its supposed principles in order to strike a deal with a thuggish President – revealing that it puts its political self-interest above all the values it once boasted about.
Third, democracy. The prospect of Turkey gaining visa-free access to Schengen is unpopular across the EU, and Turkish accession, which is a stated aim further down the line, is even more strongly opposed. Voters in numerous nations have concerns about the security implications and about the existing rate of immigration. And yet the EU’s leaders are forging ahead with a visa-free agreement for 75 million Turks, regardless of the people’s opposition. The migration crisis, which threatened to bring down governments and destroy Schengen itself, has been given political priority – and Merkel et al appear willing to pay any price in order to buy Turkey’s assistance in stopping it. This isn’t the first time the EU’s political goals have overridden the will of the people (ask the Greeks), but it is the latest, largest and most egregious example. It was bad enough when it was the Brussels elite over-ruling voters – now Recep Tayyip Erdogan apparently has the power to dictate the immigration policies of 26 European countries.
With the visa-free access programme set to start in June, thoughts in Brussels are turning nervously to the British referendum on EU membership. We aren’t in Schengen, but British voters aren’t stupid – they know the deal involves hefty subsidies for Turkey and even looser controls on access to the continent, as well as attendant security risks and another potential route for asylum claimants to mass in Calais. They also know that Turkey still talks about joining the EU as a full member. There is some discussion of the powers that be delaying the final decision on Schengen access until a few days after the referendum, but such a dodge hardly takes the issue off the table.
The EU was an insecure, ineffective and undemocratic project at the start of the year. Five months in, and the Turkey deal has made it even worse.