Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. ‘Chancellor Merkel’s counterpart is the Turkish prime minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, yet it is apparently Mr Erdoğan who will be doing the talking.’ Photograph: Burhan Ozbilici/AP
If there is to be any solution to the problem of mass migration to Europe, it will not be found in rushed negotiations with an interim government in Turkey and a leader preoccupied with improving his party’s chances in elections only two weeks away. Certainly there could be some useful changes in the way Turkey deals with refugees, and some of the demands apparently being put forward by Turkey, such as visa-free travel for its citizens, have some merit in themselves.
But the so-called “action Plan” with Turkey, decided on in Brussels this week at the latest of the EU’s anguished summits on migrants, has more the look of a piece of political theatre, allowing the Europeans to pretend that they have done something substantive on an issue increasingly agitating their electorates, while letting the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, wave some European “concessions” in front of his voters.
The trouble with the plan, which will presumably be further discussed by the president and the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, during her visit to Turkey this weekend, is that it is based on the premises that 2.5 million Syrian and Iraqi refugees will stay in Turkey if the camps are better financed, if refugees are given the right to work there, and if Turkey becomes more effective in preventing departures for Europe.
More money, in the shape of EU funds, would make the camps more liveable in the physical sense but would still not let refugees lead anything like normal lives, the lack of which is the main reason families face the risks and uncertainties of flight to Europe. A normal life in Turkey would only be possible if the right to work and permanent residence in Turkey were granted.
The chances of this happening, when 67% of Turks oppose more refugees being allowed in, must be slender. The Turks do not have, in any case, a functioning asylum regime. They refer to the Syrians and Iraqis who have come as “guests”. As for effectiveness, an arguably illegal multibillion-dollar industry, dedicated to expediting migrant departures, thrives on the Turkish coast: it would be a huge job to uproot it.
These would be large enough difficulties were the EU negotiating with a settled government in Ankara, but that is not the case. Nobody can know what the shape of the next government will be after the elections on 1 November. The results may justify Mr Erdoğan’s hopes of improving the standing of his Justice and Development party, the AKP, or, more likely, they will not. But, whatever happens, it seems odd to be rushing into talks with a government close to the end of its life. It is also odd, and perhaps objectionable, to be negotiating with Mr Erdoğan as if he were the executive president he aspires to be rather than the ceremonial head of state that, under the Turkish constitution as it stands, he remains. Chancellor Merkel’s counterpart is the Turkish prime minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, yet it is apparently Mr Erdoğan who will be doing the talking.
Finally, promises to revive talks on Turkish membership of the EU are irresponsible or worse. Turkey’s refugee burden is a taxing one and, as Natalie Nougayrède argues in her column on Saturday, Turks have shown great compassion. Europe should acknowledge that. But that does not mean relaxing the standards, especially on human rights, which would make pushing membership talks forward more vigorously very problematic.