As Turkish negotiators left for Brussels on Monday to hammer out a deal over the stream of refugees arriving in Europe via Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan instructed them to come back with hard cash.
Led by Ahmet Davutoglu, the prime minister, they not only negotiated a doubling to €6bn of the sum the EU would pay to Turkey to cover the costs of hosting 2.7m refugees, they also secured potentially more valuable concessions, including early approval for visa-free travel for Turkish citizens into the EU’s Schengen zone and revisiting access to European markets.
The concessions were “testimony to Turkey’s ability to truly and intelligently assess the underlying dynamics of the refugee crisis and develop a negotiating strategy on the basis of that”, said Sinan Ulgen, a retired Turkish diplomat and now a scholar at the Carnegie Europe think-tank.
With European leaders, principally Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel, desperate for some progress on the migrant crisis to stem growing anger at home over the issue, Turkey went into the negotiations with a strong hand — the ability to control, or not, the flow of refugees.
Anthony Skinner, director of the London-based Maplecroft risk consultancy, said: “Brussels knows that the Turkish government can open the gates to a new wave of unscreened migrants flooding Europe.”
The result was a groundbreaking deal to systematically turn back all Syrians and economic migrants reaching Greek islands in exchange for sweeteners for Ankara. The mass returns policy represents the boldest gamble yet by the EU to cut back the 2,000 people who cross daily from Turkey to Greece.
And while some EU leaders, including Italy’s Matteo Renzi and François Hollande of France, fretted over the Turkish government’s increasingly authoritarian ways, including the takeover of a leading anti-government newspaper on Friday, their hand-wringing was not enough to derail the talks.
Earlier threats by Mr Erdogan to start busing refugees to Greece, his private belittling of EU officials and a series of last-minute demands were also not enough to outweigh the need for a deal.
“[The preliminary deal] shows how politically expedient and important the refugee issue is for the EU,” said Mr Ulgen, “where on the one hand, issues like press freedom, which under normal circumstances European leaders describe as a fundamental value, but despite this they have decided to fully embrace Turkey.”
Inside Turkey, the agreement was seen as a vindication of Mr Erdogan’s political acumen, and a moral victory over Europe. For the president and his colleagues, €6bn of EU money would be welcomed, but not transformational.
Instead, it is the promise of visa-free travel that is a political victory. Long sought by Ankara, the measure will be welcomed in particularly by the small and medium-sized businesses that are drivers of the Turkish economy and of Mr Erdogan’s popularity.
Importantly, it also appeals to the westernised elite of Istanbul who normally disdain the president and who have long chafed under the stringent EU visa requirements which require even the richest to declare their assets and prove their willingness to return to their homeland.
“Turkish people deserve to travel within the EU without a visa, not only because we are helping out the refugee crisis but because we are a member of the customs union since the 1990s,” said Egemen Bagis a former EU affairs minister. “It is unacceptable that when our goods can travel freely within the EU, the owners and producers and consumers of the same goods cannot.”
A host of conditions will be attached to the travel perk, giving some leverage to the EU to push Turkey to hold up its own end of the bargain in dismantling the smuggling networks that have helped transport hundreds of thousands of people to Greek islands over the past year.
As one Turkish official privately noted, however, Mr Davutoglu’s team went into the talks knowing this task would immediately become easier because refugees would be much less willing to pay off smugglers if they knew that they would be shipped back from Greece on arrival. “We have removed the reason for the existence of the smugglers,” he said.
Yet Ankara’s joy will be tempered by the knowledge that putting the newly negotiated deal into practice will be far from simple. As Mr Skinner puts it: “On the surface, Mr Erdogan is having his cake and eating it. But everyone is aware of the elephant in the room: the EU will struggle to fulfil a number of these reciprocal measures.”