The EU is turning to Turkey for help with the refugee crisis. The political price is likely to be high, though, as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is using the opportunity for his own ends. Barbara Wesel reports.
The EU wants "an agreement of mutual trust, which is necessary given the central role Turkey plays in the refugee crisis." This was how an EU spokesman summarized the Europeans' aims in advance of the meeting.
Behind these words, in concrete terms, lies the hope that the Turkish and Greek navies will conduct joint border controls in the Aegean Sea; the hope that Turkey will pledge to set up more refugee camps within its borders, and take back any refugees who are apprehended. Essentially, the hope is that fleeing Syrians will be detained in the neighboring country instead of continuing their onward flight to Europe.
In order to achieve this, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker pulled out all the stops. He referred to the many years of friendship between himself and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and even praised him as a promoter of the reform process in Turkey.
Juncker went so far as to say that he was "very much in favor" of bringing forward negotiations on visa-free tourism. This, however, is a decision that lies with the member states - Germany and France in particular. Juncker also wants to see Turkey on the list of safe third countries. No mention of human rights abuses or the fight against the Kurds, which has been revived recently. Such a categorization would, however, suit the EU, as it would then be able to send refugees back to Turkey.
Reproaching the Europeans
However, anyone hoping that these friendly overtures would lead to quick results was soon disappointed. Erdogan made much of services he had already rendered: Although Turkey has already taken in 2.5 million refugees, he said the country would still not close its doors. Besides, he added, he wasn't the one who had sent the refugees on to Europe - an allusion, presumably, to the "culture of welcome" in Germany, for example.
Erdogan also mentioned once again that the Turkish state had already spent almost $8 billion (7.1 billion euros) on refugees: It's clear that he would like considerably more money that the 1 billion euros the EU promised him at its last summit.
Essentially, the Turkish president practically mocked the European countries. They had only confronted the refugee crisis this year, he said, implying that they had recognized the problem far too late.
Equating the Kurdish PKK with IS
However, what Erdogan wants above all is a free hand in his fight against the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and the Syrian Kurdish party, the Kurdish Democratic Union (PYD). "We must break the back of these terrorist organizations," he said on Monday, adding that this would only be possible with international cooperation and support.
Erdogan warned that credence should not be given to "black propaganda" in European circles that question whether these are indeed terrorist organizations. "We must not bestow upon them the mantle of legitimacy," he said.
The question is whether, on this basis, any progress can be made toward a more constructive cooperation. A working group in Ankara is to start detailed negotiations immediately, but concrete results are unlikely in the short term.
Turkey has the upper hand
"For years the EU has paid no attention to the fact that the majority of Syrian refugees initially found shelter in Turkey," confirmed Amanda Paul, a political analyst with the European Policy Centre, a Brussels-based think tank. Only when the stream of refugees started moving towards Europe did Brussels remember them, she told DW.
This means that Erdogan is now in an excellent position to negotiate with the EU. "Turkey has the upper hand," Paul confirmed. Swift progress on visa-free travel is at the top of Ankara's wish list, she said. In any case, there will only be useful cooperation if the Europeans make the Turkish government feel that it is an important fellow player and partner in the region.
Politically, for the EU, this is a bitter pill to swallow. "Erdogan will of course use the pictures of himself being greeted with smiles here in Brussels in the election campaign," said Paul. Any concessions the Europeans make to Turkey will strengthen his party, the AKP, in the run-up to the vote on November 1.
Paul pointed out that Erdogan himself is thwarting the democratization of his country. "He's just one step away from being a proper dictator," she warned. She doesn't believe that the EU-Turkey talks will have any noticeable impact on EU accession negotiations, which have been on ice for years.
And yet, she said, in the current situation the political advantage for the Turkish president is clear: the EU needs him more than he needs it.