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Absurd threat from Ankara

Bernd RiegertAugust 1, 2016

Visa-free travel for Turks in exchange for taking back refugees? It's not as easy as Turkey may think. Nor is blackmail, writes DW's Europe correspondent Bernd Riegert.

EU and Turkish flags
Image: Getty Images/C. McGrath

Blackmail has no place in politics among partners. That's what Turkey and the EU are on the refugee situation, no matter the internal political situation in Turkey. That makes the European Commission's rejection of Turkey's attempt to trade help with refugees for visa-free travel for its citizens particularly notable. Visa-free travel was put on the table in an agreement in March, in exchange for Turkey's fulfillment of certain conditions. A concrete deadline wasn't specified.

Turkey putting itself under pressure

Turkey's ultimatum and October deadline for the start of visa-free travel makes no sense. If anything, it puts more pressure on the Turkish government. It means it has to fulfill by then the remaining seven of 72 conditions put forth by the EU - otherwise, no visa-free travel within the EU for its citizens. However, Turkey itself has admitted it won't fulfill at least one condition - the easing of its anti-terrorism laws - making the self-imposed October deadline impossible to meet.

Ankara's threats amount to nothing more than absurd theater intended for domestic consumption, but do nothing to solve the problem. In any case, its threat to shred the refugee agreement is nothing new; it had already put that in play when trying to push through the visa liberalization by July 1. Yet the deadline passed without consequence.

It must be made clear to the Turkish government that visa-free travel isn't simply a technical matter, but a political one. There's little chance of it coming to pass so long as Turkey remains in a state of emergency with a president taking drastic measures following an attempted coup.

More than anything, visa liberalization is a political trophy President Erdogan wants to grab from the EU. In practical terms, it doesn't change much for Turks in their everyday lives. Though onerous and expensive, 90 percent of Turkish applicants are given a visa without trouble. Those who want or have to travel, can.

Deportation to Turkey so far the exception

The European Union, with Chancellor Angela Merkel's blessing, has consciously tied itself to Turkey with the refugee issue. The closure of the border between Greece and the Republic of Macedonia and the prospect of being sent back to Turkey from Greek islands have been enough to discourage refugees and migrants from trying to enter the EU over the Aegean.

In reality, only a few hundred people have been returned to Turkey. Few of them are Syrian, given longer-than-planned asylum processing in Greece. Turkey's role is therefore tied more to taking care of refugees and migrants on its territory than in taking back failed asylum seekers. Charities are now beginning to receive funds from the EU to do this, regardless of what President Erdogan says.

Turkey could easily annul the refugee agreement - as, indeed, could the EU - which is only a political declaration, not a legally binding agreement under international law. But what would happen? Would there suddenly be a flood of refugees coming over the Aegean? That's hard to say, but experts in the EU think not, so long as the Balkan route, leading from Greece from northern Europe, remains closed.

Little solidarity with Greece

Greece is in the most precarious situation. That's where the risk is greatest that even greater numbers of people could get stuck, with little guarantee other EU member states will help. This is perhaps intentional: The worse things get in Greece, the more discouraged people may be to try entering Europe.

Should it come to pass that more refugees again cross from Turkey into Greece, the EU will at least pro forma have to consider another controversial distribution of them. Since April, the EU has been able to avoid this thanks to the agreement with Turkey.

The situation would worsen drastically should Erdogan make good on his threat of a year ago: He could send refugees on buses to Greece or Bulgaria any time. It may seem far-fetched, but given the political reality in Turkey since the coup attempt, anything is possible.

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