Opening border to Syrian refugees a domestic win for Turkish gov’t - expert

Opening the border with Greece to Syrian refugees in February achieves little in revisited EU-Turkey migrant negotiations, but offers a win for the Turkish government back home, political expert Özgehan Şenyuva wrote in an op-ed for the German Marshall Fund.

The Turkish government is aiming to secure domestic victories because any progress with the European Union is very unlikely at the moment, Şenyuva wrote. “(Opening the border) stokes two important issues that (Turkish) public opinion is sensitive about regardless of party affiliation: anti-EU and anti-Syrian attitudes.”

Thousands gathered at the border after Turkish authorities said in February they would no longer stop migrants trying to get to Europe. Turkey said the European Union had failed to keep to pledges it made in a refugee deal signed in 2016, which promised Turkey billions of euros in financial aid in return for curbing the flow of migrants to Europe.

Şenyuva pointed out that Turkish public opinion polls showed anti-Syrian sentiments across party lines, regions and economic groups. “This is one issue that unites public opinion,” the expert wrote.

The ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) losses in the 2019 local elections were likely caused by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan avoidance of anti-refugee rhetoric for years, Şenyuva wrote.

Since then, the government has been under tremendous pressure from AKP senior officials “to show that the situation is under control and that refugees will eventually be returned to Syria,” he said.

On top of taking a harder stance on refugees, Erdoğan had on several occasions threatened to open the border for Syrian refugees to flood the European Union.

The government’s move in February was a major turning point in Turkish-EU relations, bringing the 2016 refugee deal to be revisited back on the table, Şenyuva wrote.

“However, the negotiations will not be easy, as both sides have low trust towards each other. Neither seems to have learnt from the mistake of linking the refugee situation to wider Turkish-EU relations, and in particular to Turkey’s bid for membership.”

Turkey has little to gain from renegotiations with the European Union, Şenyuva wrote, as relaunching membership negotiations or visa-free travel for Turkish citizens is rather unlikely.

“Turkish-EU relations are in an impasse with little progress in sight.”