Crises can result in strange bedfellows. Having criticised Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for his “authoritarian” ways, European Union leaders are now turning to the Turkish leader to help ease the unprecedented influx of refugees on to EU territory.
As EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker told the European Parliament in Strasbourg: “In the refugee crisis, Turkey and the EU walk together and work together.”
Not surprisingly Erdogan is making the most of it. The Turkish president has not endeared himself to democrats and human rights activists at home or abroad with his clampdown on the media, arrest of opponents, the crackdown on civil society protests, lavish spending on his official residence and other actions, including targeting of Syrian Kurdish strongholds.
Relations between the EU and Turkey have been on the backburner for several years as the 28-nation bloc has fretted and sweated at the rollback of reforms in a country which is a candidate to join the EU.
EU membership negotiations have been put on hold. Turkey has sulked, saying its interests lie to its east, not the west.
The EU has raged against Ankara’s disregard for European values. Relations are still strained. But both Turkey and the EU are more vulnerable than in the past.
Ankara’s dreams and ambitions of becoming an indispensable regional player have been destroyed by Syrian President Bashar Al Assad’s refusal to listen to Turkey. As a result, Erdogan’s influence in the region is not as potent as it was a few years ago.
Europe’s many vulnerabilities are common knowledge. Even as Germany under Chancellor Angela Merkel has opened the borders to refugees from Syria, the sudden and massive arrival of hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers has eroded public and political support for the move.
And so to the negotiating table where Erdogan and the EU engage in horse-trading over the fate of refugees from Syria and other countries in conflict even as they try to put their own relations back on track.
According to media reports, the Europeans are offering eventually to take half a million Syrians from new refugee and asylum-processing camps they would co-fund in Turkey in return for Ankara tightening its borders to stop people being smuggled in hazardous vessels to Greece, and agreeing to take back migrants who make it “illegally” to Europe via Turkey.
As part of any possible pact, Erdogan is asking for a relaxation in visa requirements for Turks travelling to Europe. He also wants the EU to list Turkey as “a safe third country”, effectively whitewashing Ankara’s increasingly repressive policies and deteriorating human rights and media freedoms record.
“Europe has to manage its borders better. We expect Turkey to do the same,” said Donald Tusk, the president of the European council, following talks with Erdogan. “The situation where hundreds of thousands are fleeing to the European Union from Turkey must be stopped.”
Erdogan responded that Ankara was hosting almost 10 times as many Syrian refugees as the EU. While open to talks with Brussels, he said the key to stopping the flow of refugees was to establish a no-fly zone over the Turkish-Syria border and a buffer zone in northern Syria.
This is viewed as a non-starter in Europe and in Washington, but Tusk said: “The European Union is ready to take up all issues with Turkey so we can also discuss a possible buffer zone in Syria.”
Turkey is home to two million Syrian refugees and is the source of most of the influx into Europe of recent months. A pact with Turkey is now seen as the key to the effort to turn chaos into control.
The aim is to have the Turks and the Greeks mount joint border controls at sea, organised by Frontex, the EU’s borders agency and that intercepted boat people be turned back to Turkey.
Meanwhile, in an unusual joint appeal, Merkel and French President Francois Hollande have urged European politicians to pull together amid multiple crises in a bid to heal EU divisions caused by the influx of refugees, debt crises and encroaching nationalist sentiment.
In separate addresses to the European Parliament in Strasbourg last week, both leaders underlined the risks now besetting the EU’s 28 nations.
“The debate is not about less Europe or more Europe,” Mr Hollande told politicians, evoking the question of national sovereignty besetting member nations. “It is about the affirmation of Europe or the end of Europe. Yes, the end of Europe.”
Chancellor Merkel, who has come forward as the champion of refugees flowing into Europe, said overcoming the refugee crisis together is a key challenge for the European Union.
“It is precisely now,” she said, “that we need more Europe … If we overcome that, we will be stronger after the crisis than before.”
It was the first such joint appearance in Strasbourg since 1989, when West German chancellor Helmut Kohl and French president Francois Mitterrand spoke days after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
“In the refugee crisis we must not succumb to the temptation of falling back into acting in nationalistic terms,” said Ms Merkel, standing next to French President Hollande, adding: “National solo efforts are no solution to the refugee crisis.”
Significantly even as the two EU leaders were speaking in Strasbourg, the EU’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, announced that a combined EU naval mission known as EU Navfor Med will now be able “to board, search and seize vessels in international waters, [after which] suspected smugglers and traffickers will be transferred to the Italian judicial authorities”.
Yes, Europe is confused, overwhelmed and uncertain about what to do next. President Erdogan, in contrast, knows exactly what he wants: respect and recognition from a Europe that has too often disregarded Turkey as an important ally. And, ultimately, Turkish membership of the 28-nation European Union.