The first time Turkey threatened to break its pact with the European Union on migrants was on April 19, exactly one month and one day after signing it. Then-Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu (dismissed a few days later by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan) warned that if Brussels didn’t hurry to liberalize visas for Turkish citizens by June then Ankara would no longer hold back the three million Syrian refugees in its borders.
Periodically agitated by Erdogan, the possibility of a new wave of refugee arrivals has returned to worry Europe. Signed March 18, the agreement with Turkey stipulates that Ankara will prevent refugees from leaving for Greece in exchange for €6 billion and some important political concessions, first and foremost the ability of Turkish citizens to move freely within the Schengen zone.
Brussels has been relieved to find the agreement has so far worked, noting a decline in the number of arrivals in Greece from about 10,000 a day at its 2015 peak to just a few dozen. All of this, of course, comes at the expense of those who continue to dream of Europe.
Punctually, though, Erdogan has asked to be paid. Of the promised sum, Brussels has paid only €667 million and claims to have mobilized €2.2 billion in its budget. But above all Turkey is demanding the opening of the borders to Turks. On this point, however, Europe has put on the brakes, rightly concerned by Turkey’s policy of repression against anyone critical of government policy, from journalists to intellectuals, exacerbated after the failed coup in July. Brussels is also concerned by an anti-terrorism law that it sees more as a means to silence internal opposition.
With each European hesitation, Ankara threatens to blow up the agreement. Turkey repeated the threat again this week after Greece refused to extradite eight Turkish soldiers accused of taking part in the coup. Although in this case it limits the terms of the treaty cancellation to the readmission of illegal migrants from Greece. It’s a relative threat, given the low numbers crossing the Aegean.
But could Erdogan really be willing to put an end to the agreement? Certainly he could let migrants continue their journeys, and the consequences would be catastrophic, primarily for Greece. But, for various reasons, the repercussions could eventually weigh on Turkey itself.
Syrians, in fact, represent an important source of wealth for the fragile Turkish economy. In the first three months of 2016, bank deposits of middle- and upper-class Syrian refugees amounted to €360 million, a figure well above the entire sum deposited in 2015 and has continued to grow throughout the year. The amount of money coming into Turkey from Syria totals over $11 billion since 2011. The Turkish chamber of commerce reports more than 4,000 new business have been started by Syrians since 2011. It’s no coincidence that Erdogan has repeatedly announced plans to grant Turkish citizenship to Syrian refugees.
Turkey has been further weakened, however, by terrorist attacks that brought tourism down by 30 percent. Unemployment is around 12 percent. To survive, the Turkish economy depends on the Europe that Erdogan threatens. The Italian business daily Il Sole 24 Ore has calculated that since 2002, when the AKP came to power, 75 percent of investment in Turkey has come from Europe. In Italy alone, the fourth-largest partner, has exchanged €17.5 billion (of which €10.6 billion are imports and €6.9 billion are exports), a figure which Ankara hopes to increase to €30 billion within the next three years.
Would the Turkish president, who could remain in power for the next 10 years, really be willing to risk a crisis with Europe? It remains to be seen what Erdogan will do, but one thing is certain: The months-long stalemate between Turkey and the European Union can hardly last much longer.