EU mulls more refugee aid for Turkey despite 'blackmail'

Merkel's recent statement indicated that Europe was willing to provide more money to Turkey despite anger over Erdogan's behaviour.

ISTANBUL - In a stunning policy reversal, Turkey said it was closing the land border with Greece in line with demands from Europe, more than two weeks after Ankara’s decision to “open the gates” triggered a major crisis with the European Union.

The Turkish Interior Ministry said the border with Greece and Bulgaria would be closed as of midnight March 18 in the framework of Turkey’s fight against the coronavirus outbreak. The decision came a day after Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan met via video conference about the refugee crisis with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

The video conference, organised after leaders decided to avoid a personal meeting because of the spread of the coronavirus, took place a week after Erdogan met with EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and EU Council President Charles Michel in Brussels.

The flurry of diplomatic activity was sparked by Erdogan’s decision February 28 to open Turkey’s land border with Greece. Tens of thousands of Syrians, Afghans and refugees from other countries went to the border to enter Greece but Greek border guards, backed by officers from the European border task force Frontex, blocked most migrants from entering Greece. Border troops have used tear gas, water cannon and plastic bullets in clashes with refugees.

New violence broke out in mid-March after about 500 migrants attempted to break down a border fence and enter Greece, the Associated Press reported. Greek police said they used tear gas to repel the push to break down the fence south of the Kastanies Border Crossing. They said Turkish authorities also fired tear gas at the Greek border.

Turkish media reported that about 10,000 migrants are holding out in the hope of finding a way to cross the border but the Associated Press put their number at only 2,000.

Erdogan, whose country has taken in 3.6 million Syrians, has said Europe is not fulfilling its promises made under a 2016 pact signed to stem a flow of hundreds of thousands of Syrians via Turkey to Europe that shocked the European Union. Under the agreement Brussels said Turkey would receive $6.6 billion in return for preventing Syrians from crossing into the European Union, in an understanding that, in effect, paid Turkey for keeping the refugees within its borders.

By opening the border gates to Greece, Erdogan violated that deal, the European Union said. Speaking days after Erdogan’s decision, Merkel accused the Turkish president of playing politics “on the backs of refugees.” Other EU officials said Erdogan was trying to “blackmail” Europe. Erdogan countered by comparing the Greek border guards to “Nazis.”

Merkel indicated after the video conference that Europe was willing to provide more money to Turkey despite anger over Erdogan’s behaviour. She said Europe was willing to talk about Ankara’s demand to extend an existing customs union between the European Union and Turkey.

Gerald Knaus, co-founder of the European Stability Initiative think-tank in Berlin and one of the architects of the 2016 refugee agreement, said Turkey had lost many sympathies in the European Union by encouraging people to cross the border with Greece irregularly. However, Europe should not let itself be guided by indignation over Erdogan, Knaus said by telephone.

“It is good that Turkey stops to instrumentalise people at the border,” Knaus said, speaking after Ankara’s decision to close the border again. “Now the EU should table its offer of further support for refugees in Turkey.”

“No matter who is president in Ankara, the European Union has to acknowledge what Turkey has been doing hosting millions of refugees for years already,” Knaus said. “Both sides have an interest in renewing the cooperation” agreed in 2016 but Turkey had to end its “immoral game” of using desperate refugees to pressure the European Union, he added.

Knaus said the European Union should announce the payment of another $6.6 billion to make sure that integration and education programmes for Syrians in Turkey continued. “What we need is a mini-agreement to help the refugees as quickly as possible,” he said.

Other issues, such as Turkey’s demand that the European Union grant Turkish citizens visa-free travel in Europe, could be addressed in detailed negotiations in the coming months, because all borders are closed in any case because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The video conference did not produce decisions for Idlib. Merkel said Germany had already earmarked $137 million for humanitarian aid in the Syrian province. However, she and other Western leaders are reluctant to provide money for Erdogan’s plan to resettle up to 2 million Syrians from Turkey in a “safe zone” in a region of north-eastern Syria occupied by Turkish troops.

Knaus said that while the European Union was right to distance itself from any plan to change the demographic situation in the predominantly Kurdish north-east of Syria, the situation was different in Idlib because desperate people there had been displaced by fighting in other areas of Syria.

“Cooperation with Turkey to provide humanitarian aid for people in Idlib is not the same as supporting resettlement plans for north-eastern Syria,” Knaus said.

Thomas Seibert is a contributor in Istanbul for The Arab Weekly, where this article was originally published.