Tsipras’ Visit to Ankara: Irresolute Leaderships Muddying the Waters

Source: Alliance AA. H. Göktepe

Source: Alliance AA. H. Göktepe

On November 18th, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras visited Ankara for talks with Turkey’s ruling duet. A major imbalance was in play from the beginning. As Greek academic and expert on Greek-Turkish relations Angelos Syrigos warned, a necessary precondition for dialogue of any substance between two countries is the presence of strong leadership on both sides. And while the Erdoğan-Davutoğlu duet seems to be thriving, Mr. Tsipras is politically exhausted. The former won the recent parliamentary elections of November 1st on a platform emphasizing security, stability and domestic dangers. Tsipras on the other hand, despite winning two elections this year, has seen his approval ratings plummet to 29% in September, from 70% in March. And on November 12th, a country-wide strike was staged against Syriza’s new austerity agenda.

What’s at stake for the two countries?

The Syrian refugee issue has provoked a gigantic tug of war ranging from the Atlantic to Anatolia, with few issues having had a more divisive impact on the continent’s recent history. But not everybody carries an equal burden. While in Western (and more affluent) Europe, the discussion predisposes one towards futurology, the south is in desperate need of practical solutions to practical problems. Greece and Turkey are good cases in point: the former has had more than 650,000 refugees passing over its soil in 2015 alone, while the latter is host to an estimated 2.2 million Syrians.

With his political fortunes in a state of decline, the Greek Prime Minister did well to pursue some sort of understanding with Turkey’s rulers. But is there any common ground? Could there be a minimal common denominator on the basis of which the refugee plight could be mitigated?
Greece and Turkey have exhibited kindness towards the scores of refugees reaching their soil. In the former, both local authorities and populations have manifested their hospitality to people reaching their shores. But in the long run, good politics can hardly be predicated on hospitality and kindness. Greece, in dire financial straits, is looking for a balancing mechanism which will relocate refugees to more affluent European countries, allot it a number proportional to its capabilities (Greece is not the poorest country in the EU and is morally obliged to take in a number) and return those without the right to remain to their origin country; most often Turkey.

Like Greece, Turkey has been generous to an extent in its treatment of refugees and has already spent around $8 billion on covering their basic needs. But Turkey is also thought to have done so for cynical political manoeuvring: for example Turkey amassed a large number of Syrian refugees which it prevented from exiting in order to pressure NATO states to intervene in Syria. When that didn’t happen, the blockade was ended and refugees were encouraged to cross to Greece.

Additionally, Turkey has done very little to stifle the huge smuggling networks operating on its soil. With Turkish hospitality now at the point of overstretch, they may finally be pressed into combating this issue in order to inhibit more Syrian refugees crossing its borders.

What the Talks should Have Achieved

There is no more than a coincidental link between EU demands and Greek-Turkish plans. The EU views the refugee issue more from the angle of domestic politics and, more recently, security. Greece and Turkey view them primarily from the standpoint of economic capabilities and in the case of Turkey, as a lever to further its European status.

Regardless it would make sense for the two countries to reach an agreement on some simple basic measures to be taken immediately. Firstly, Turkey, whose intelligence services are of a high calibre, could step up efforts to clamp down on smuggling networks (even decreasing or obviating the need to jointly patrol the Aegean, as recently proposed by European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker). Secondly, Turkey could establish reception/identification centres where refugees will be vetted and their international protection status assessed. Such centres are being set up now but the project is controversial, as it is thought to impinge on migrants’ rights. Greece could also establish such centres to assess cases that related to Turkey (or for alternative routes, such as the North African one). Thirdly, the two countries could reactivate their long dormant readmission agreement, which calls for the return to Turkey of migrants entering EU soil illegally, which has thus far amounted to absolute nothing; in April 2015, only 10% of Greek readmission requests had been accepted by Turkey. The cost of such projects would not be high and would reduce long-term overall costs.

What the Talks Achieved Instead

But the talks were vague on all issues but the one of smuggling networks. Turkey’s continuing blind eye to human smuggling networks was briefly touched upon, with pledges of more coordination and the exchange of coast guard attaches. Turkey flatly rejected the idea of “hotspots”; European-run reception centres for relocating refugees from warzones and filtering others who cross into Europe via countries considered gateways.

In fairness, Turkey’s reticence is not solipsistic but rather a reflection of the divergent agendas of EU member states. As many Eastern European and Balkan states have turned a cold shoulder to Syrian refugees, Turkey is afraid that “hotspots” could become part of an interventionist framework whereby third countries will return refugees not abiding by their religious or educational criteria. It was thus shrewd of the Greek Prime Minister to call them “accommodation or identification centres”, an effort to distance himself from standard EU notions and offer Turkey some leeway in their formation.

It became clear during the talks that the readmission agreement between the two countries, signed in 2001 but dormant since not long after, has achieved very little by admission of the UN. Again, Turkey disavowed responsibility for the agreement on the grounds that the refugee issue should be a part of European initiative.

What the Future Holds

In hindsight, the visit was doomed from the beginning for two main reasons: first, because the exhausted Greek Prime Minister, distracted by pressing domestic concerns, has very little clout with the Turkish leadership, who after their recent resounding victory can act in due time. And second, because the refugee issue has become a high-stakes game between political powerhouses, who view it as part of a geopolitical poker game rather than an issue of morality.

If there is any room for the latter, then Greece and Turkey should sit at the table with serious proposals on issues whose contours they can help shape. If not, the refugee game will be played solely on an EU-Turkey level and there, the EU will hardly welcome bigger numbers of refugees, while Turkey will try to extract as much as possible out of tough negotiations. It seems that regardless, refugees will not top the list of priorities and will continue to suffer the consequences of global political manoeuvring.

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