The missing links

The first one is the total rejection of the deal by cynics and pessimists who project all of their frustration and anger about Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s “new Turkey” onto the EU and the agreement. People supporting this view have basically given up on the EU (a failed project on the verge of moral and political collapse) and on democracy in Turkey (forget about it as long as Erdogan is around). They don’t come up with any alternatives, they tend to wallow in dark scenarios and consider everybody who does not agree with them a naive fool. It is an attitude that, albeit understandable to a certain extent, is completely counterproductive in my view because it destroys even the last bits of hope that are indispensable to continue the uphill battle for more democracy in this country.

The second group of critics of the refugee deal focuses on its potential negative effects. One is the tendency among EU leaders to refrain from criticism on the deteriorating situation in Turkey, now and in the future. An example was the postponement of the annual progress report. It was indeed a tactical mistake that has eclipsed the strong and well-documented message of the European Commission: Turkey is backsliding on most political criteria. The fact that nobody on Sunday even mentioned the tragic killing of Tahir Elci and the arrests of Can Dundar and Erdem Gul was a missed opportunity. Such omissions should indeed be criticized because they would, when and if repeated, fatally undermine the prestige of the EU as a defender of democracy and human rights.

Another result of the deal feared by many is the inclination of the Turkish authorities to interpret the agreement with the EU as a blank check to stop, from now on, every refugee from entering or leaving Turkey. I already wrote about the closed borders with Syria in violation of international law. The massive arrest of more than a thousand refugees in Ayvacık trying to cross to Greece on Monday could just be a show operation to demonstrate to the EU that Turkey has already started to practice the deal in a tough way. But without a legal way to enter the EU yet available and before measures to better accommodate the refugees in Turkey have been implemented, such a blunt policy would infringe on the right of refugees to seek asylum in Europe. It is, again, a correct criticism that can only be answered by the EU making it clear to Turkey that, while trying to convince more Syrian refugees to stay, Turkey should at all times respect the basic rights of asylum seekers.

The third critical way to look at the deal welcomes the initiative but is afraid that it won’t work because some key elements are still absent. In my view, this emphasis on the missing links is the most productive one. Let’s look at the three most important gaps that should be repaired by Ankara and Brussels as soon as possible in order to make the Sunday agreement effective. One is the need to offer Syrian refugees the right to work. Legislation that would settle this issue was previously stalled in the Turkish Parliament because it is not very popular with many, especially with unemployed Turks. But it is crystal clear that without such an arrangement it will be impossible to convince Syrians that they can build a new life in Turkey. The second sensitive challenge on Turkey’s plate is the need to change its refugee policy, gradually skip the current geographical limitation and allow non-European refugees (to begin with those from Syria) to apply for refugee status in Turkey. Again, without this prospect, most Syrians will keep using Turkey as a temporary shelter on their way to Europe.

Finally, there is the missing link that the EU should take care of: the need to create a legal way for refugees to enter Europe. Germany is working hard to form a coalition with the willing (France, the Netherlands, Sweden, Austria and others) that would accept large contingents of Syrian refugees directly from Turkey. There are still a lot of snags in this plan, and it won’t be easy to get everybody on board in Brussels and Ankara. In a few weeks, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker will come up with the first draft that, if accepted, would offer a real perspective for Syrian refugees, decrease the burden on Turkey’s shoulders and make the flow of asylum seekers better manageable for European countries.

Let me finish by offering my sincere condolences to the family of Tahir Elci. He was a brave man whose courage and vision will be desperately missed. May he rest in peace.