Turkey’s accession process to the European Union has gained new momentum after the Turkey-EU summit held in Brussels on Nov. 29. This was a unexpected result based on various unrelated developments.
One of the contributing factors has been, paradoxically, the Syrian refugee crisis. Turkey went far beyond its capacity to accommodate the Syrian refugees. It has spent, so far, $8 billion for them, but this proved to be insufficient. Many refugees are still homeless, jobless and without hope. Therefore they started looking for a better life in the EU. They resorted to means that brought their plight higher visibility. Many drowned in the Aegean Sea while crossing from Turkey to the Greek islands in shaky boats; others found their way to the borders of EU countries. The heartbreaking picture of the dead body of a 3-year-old boy stranded on the shores of Bodrum raised awareness in the media. Most EU countries came to the conclusion that cooperating with Turkey may help facilitate their task of tackling this problem.
The emergence of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has been another factor that contributed to the new momentum in the EU accession process. The need to contain ISIL has become a more urgent task. Cooperation with Turkey is also of great value in this area, because Turkey’s air defense infrastructure offers several advantages for air raids on ISIL targets and because it could also contribute to cutting some of ISIL’s supply lines.
The third factor is the new optimism for the solution of the Cyprus problem. This problem was, at least in appearance, one of the stumbling blocks in Turkey’s EU accession process. The election of Mustafa Akıncı as president of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (KKTC) has created new hope for the solution of the problem.
One of the thorny issues between Turkey and the EU is visa facilitation. It is intrinsically linked to a technical question deriving from the “Readmission Agreement.” This agreement provides that if the citizens of a third country travelling to an EU country through Turkey are found ineligible for entry, Turkey will have to re-admit them. Turkey had difficulties assuming such a large task because citizens of many politically unstable countries in the Middle East and Asia were travelling towards Europe through Turkey. Therefore the burden of accommodating and feeding the migrants or refugees turned back by EU countries will be left on Turkey’s shoulders.
A solution package emerged after the pressure of the Syrian refugees at the EU borders began to increase. This solution addresses both Turkey and the EU’s concerns and tackles several problems at the same time. Turkey will accelerate its preparations for a visa-free regime. This includes fulfilling 72 criteria, most of which have already been fulfilled. The EU Commission will present its progress report on this subject by March 2016. The Readmission Agreement will become fully applicable from June 2016. If everything goes according to schedule, Turkish citizens will enjoy visa-free travel to the Schengen area from October 2016. The EU will provide 3 billion euros to alleviate Turkey’s burden to look after such refugees. As an additional incentive, Chapter 17 in Turkey’s accession negotiations — Economic and Monetary Policy — will be opened on Dec. 15 and Turkey’s EU accession process will be revived.
This package may help alleviate the EU’s refugee problem. However many EU countries believe a broader issue like Turkey’s accession process should be assessed on its own merits and should not be linked to unrelated issues that have to be solved immediately, like the refugee problem. Therefore it is not easy to say if the revived EU accession process will be sustained.
Turkey’s path to the EU has always been bumpy. Both Turkey and the EU failed to fulfill their mutual commitments more than once in the past. Therefore we have reason to be optimistic this time, but it is still a guarded optimism.