EU gains time to reach agreement on visa-liberalisation with Turkey while anti-terrorism law continues to be applied against Turkish journalists

Wednesday, 21 September 2016 07:55
Brussels has recently become the focus point for open discussions on the aftermath of the failed military coup in Turkey. While Turkey itself is in state of emergency, discussions and briefings are taking place in Brussels on the current situation in the country, the EU-Turkey deal (or statement) on immigration and the prospects of reaching an agreement on visa-liberalisation for Turkish citizens.

At a policy dialogue arranged by the European Policy Centre (EPC) on 16 September, Selim Yenel, head of the mission of Turkey to EU, expressed optimism about the outcome of the recent High Level Policy Dialogue meeting (9 September) in Ankara between Turkey and EU. “There is no plan B” (in case no agreement with EU is reached),” he underlined.

“We have only plan A – the EU-Turkey deal on migration and the roadmap to visa-liberalisation”. He stated that Turkey in the beginning did not ask for any EU concessions or for linking the migration deal with progress in Turkey’s accession process. “We received Syrian refugees and agreed to take back refugees from Europe because of a moral obligation. Turkey is a de facto safe country.”

But he also hinted that the situation could easily get out of hand. The smugglers, whose business model EU was so proud to dismantle, are back again and have lowered the price. And it is too late to “decouple” the migration deal from other issues. “The migration deal is off without visa-liberalisation,” he said.

Without disclosing anything from the dialogue meeting in Ankara, which ended without any joint statement, Yenel said diplomatically that “nothing is impossible - it just takes more time.” The fact that the meeting at all took place after a delay was a positive thing and Turkey appreciated the EU gesture to arrange the meeting in Ankara instead of Brussels.

He was also optimistic about a forthcoming breakthrough in the Cyprus issue which could pave the way for the opening of the crucial rule of law chapters in Turkey’s stalled accession process. The current state of emergency in Turkey will hopefully cease by the end of October, according to the ambassador.

On the EU side, Photis Bourloyannis-Tsangaris, desk officer for Turkey in the European External Action Service, seemed to agree with the Turkish ambassador that an agreement on fulfilling all outstanding benchmarks on visa-liberalisation is doable and is a matter of time. There is a commitment on both sides to go ahead with visa-liberalisation and technical discussions are on-going, he said.

He also stated that the EU-Turkey Statement proved effective in breaking the business model of the smugglers and had delivered concrete results in terms of saving lives and stemming the flow of migrants and refugees. “The failed coup didn’t have any negative impact on the EU-Turkey Statement”.

Statistics on EU-Turkey Migration Deal (Statement)

Before the migration deal became operational (on 20 March), a daily average of 1,740 migrants was crossing the Aegan Sea from Turkey to the Greek islands. Overall, since 20 March until 13 September the average is 94 per day. Turkish authorities carry out coastal patrolling with the same intensity as before the failed coup on 15 July.

According to figures from the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the number of deaths of migrants/refugees in the Eastern Mediterranean route has been reduced from 366 in the 3 months preceding the entry into force of the statement (i.e. January - March) to 20 in the following 5 months (April to August).

A total of 502 people have been returned under the EU-Turkey Statement as of 14 September. The vast majority of migrants arriving irregularly in Greece after 20 March have applied for asylum: 13,954 migrants expressed their intention to apply for asylum in the Greek islands as of 11 September 2016.

4,602 asylum applications of third country citizens or stateless persons to be examined both on admissibility and eligibility have been registered by this date. Their applications are treated on a case-by-case basis, in line with EU and international law requirements and the principle of non-refoulement (the protection of refugees from being returned or expelled to places where they are persecuted).

The total number of people resettled under the EU-Turkey statement stood at 1,583 as of 14 September. The decisions taken by the Greek Appeal Committees in favour of the appeals stood at 281 on 11 September. In addition, 35 negative decisions have been issued by the same date.

Source: European External Action Service (EEAS)

While the figures show that the most important parts of the migration deal – stemming the flow of migrants and reducing the number of deaths – have been achieved, other parts such as the return and resettlement of refugees is insignificant. The asylum application process in Greece is apparently slow and has to pick up steam.

Anyway, the results did not impress the other two participants in EPC’s policy dialogue. Bobo Weber from the Democratization Policy Council, a Berlin-based think tank, presented his paper on the European refugee crisis and the EU-Turkey deal. He claimed that the crisis was of EU’s own making and could have been avoided.

Instead EU muddled through in managing a crisis which has become an existential threat to EU, turning member states against each-other and resulting in the collapse of external borders and the unravelling of the so-called Dublin system on refugee reception. “The EU – Turkey deal is not sustainable and will inflict more collateral damage than it delivers in short-term benefits,” he said.

Weber proposed a “plan B” that addresses EU’s internal crisis and amends the EU-Turkey deal on certain points while decoupling it from other issues such as accession and visa-liberalisation. He was supported by Lotte Leicht from the Brussels office of Human Rights Watch who stressed the global aspects of the refugee crisis and the need to give the refugees, wherever they are, a future.

“We are losing a generation,” she said and urged all involved countries to stop moving refugees around and instead offering them a future by providing them legal and safe ways of resettlement and effective integration by traineeships, education, and private sponsorships.

EU may have gained some extra time in reaching the necessary agreements with Turkey so that the migration deal will become sustainable but time is definitely not on EU’s side. While an effort is made by both sides to solve the issue of the Turkish anti-terrorism law - the last remaining hurdle for visa-liberalisation – the law continues to be applied against journalists and ordinary citizens.

Sevgi Akarcesme, the former editor of chief of the Turkish daily Zaman and now in exile in Brussels, wrote recently (15 September) in the International New York Times that a total of 117 journalists were behind bars and 160 media outlets have been shut down. “In total, more than 100,000 people have been suspended or fired from their government jobs; nearly 43,000 have been detained, and 23,770 arrested.”

At a recent briefing at the Brussels Press Club, a known human rights activist stated that there hardly existed any free media any longer in Turkey. “The situation before the coup was not good and has been worse since then, especially for journalists,” he said. He did not place much hope on EU’s support and counted more on civilian disobedience and peaceful protest actions.

“The plotters in the coup attacked also media and had the coup succeeded the situation would have been much worse. But the situation is enough worrying as it is. Besides journalists, hundreds of people have been arrested for tweets and for ‘insulting’ public officials or the president.” Everything because of legislation that EU wants changed.

“The hope of internal peace in Turkey came to an end with the resuming of the war against PKK last year.” Members of parliament of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) are called to interrogations and the party risks of being dismantled and declared illegal. The parliament is bypassed, the country is ruled by government decrees, and elected mayors in several municipalities, the majority of them Kurdish, have been replaced.

M. Apelblat

The Brussels Times

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