The refugee crisis is building bridges between Greece and Turkey. A cooperation would benefit the traditional enemies; isolation is the wrong strategy, says Southeast Europe expert Gerald Knaus.
DW: Turkey has offered to take refugees back from Greece if the European Union accepts a Syrian refugee from Turkey for every one sent back. What do you make of this suggestion?
Gerald Knaus: Turkey’s suggestion is fair. But it would have to be carried out in accordance with Greek and EU-compatible laws. And these state that refugees who reach the Greek islands can in fact be sent back to Turkey if Turkey is prepared to accept them. However, that can only work if the refugees don’t apply for asylum. If people do apply for asylum, the application can be processed quickly if Turkey is designated a safe third country. I would argue that it is. But at the same time, it’s clear that Turkey could do a lot more to improve conditions for refugees with further reforms and financial support from the EU. At the moment, conditions for refugees are much worse in Greece than in Turkey. So if Turkey were a safe third country, Greek authorities would be able to act quickly.
Is the EU prepared to compromise with Turkey, or could you say that it’s being blackmailed by Ankara?
When it comes to the refugee crisis, it would be pretty brazen to suggest that the Turkey is trying to blackmail the EU. Turkey is the country that has accepted the most refugees - many more than any other country in Europe. At the same time, the EU wants Turkey to keep the refugees in the country. If Turkey then says that it needs financial support from the EU, which has an interest in the plan working, then that is hardly blackmail, especially when you consider that Ankara is asking for the money for 2018.
On the other hand, it’s also perfectly clear that the EU can’t rush the accession process as a sort of "thank you" present to Turkey for helping with the refugee crisis. Turkey wants to open the next chapter in its membership bid, but membership can’t happen until all 28 member states agree, and we’re still far from that.
What strategies is Turkey following, then, both in the medium and long term?
I think Turkey has two goals: First, when it comes to the refugee question, it does not want to be left on its own to deal with the crisis, especially given that the flow of refugees looks set to continue. Turkey wants to ensure that it doesn’t become the waiting room for Europe, with very little in the way of help, as was the case between 2011 and 2015.
Secondly, Turkey wants to be on a good footing with Germany. It has an interest in the success of those EU countries taking a stand against Islamophobic, anti-migrant and anti-Muslim rhetoric - such as Germany. This is because if the Turkey-EU deal fails, the only alternative currently on the table in Brussels is the plan to simply cut off Turkey and Greece with a new wall in the Balkans. That’s the plan that many central European countries are working on very intensively at the moment.
What chance does this new alliance of Greece, Turkey and Germany have of counteracting the isolationist policy?
I can only hope that the closer ties between Germany and Turkey will lead to better relations in the medium term. The prerequisite for this is, however, that when it comes to human rights, Turkey again pursues reforms that strengthen instead of weaken them. If, in the near future, Turkish officials start working with Greek officials on the Greek islands, and if both Greece and Turkey recognize how important it is for this cooperation to be effective, then we can hope that the situation in the Aegean will improve. For Turkey, the border with Greece is the safest, friendliest border at the moment; Turkey is otherwise surrounded by conflicts, weakened states and enemies.
EU accession candidates in the Western Balkans have participated in the border closures. What does this mean for them?
Without a doubt, the idea that you can stop the flow of refugees with deterrence and with a fence is, in every respect, a disaster for the Balkan states. I am pretty sure that it won’t work. There is a huge incentive for smugglers to find another route. Then you have the fact that Greece has been left to bear the brunt of their actions. For Skopje and Belgrade, I think that raises the question of whether the way they’re treating Greece is acceptable behavior for a potential EU member.
Austrian Southeast Europe expert Gerald Knaus is the head of the European Stability Initiative (ESI), which has offices in Berlin, Brussels, Istanbul and Vienna.