Turkey Still Wants to Wield Threat of Refugee Crisis Over the EU

Tugce Ozsoy and Viktoria Dendrinou

(Bloomberg) -- Turkey isn’t ready to let go of its threat to unleash a migration crisis on the European Union.

Ahead of high-level meetings in Brussels Monday, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan urged Greece to open its borders to refugees, a call likely to further stir tensions with the EU as it grapples with the damage unleashed by the spread of the deadly and unpredictable coronavirus.

“You should also open the gates and take a weight off your mind,” Erdogan said in Istanbul on Sunday. “After the latest developments in Idlib, Syria, we’ve given the refugees the opportunity to go where they’d like.”

Erdogan will meet on Monday with Charles Michel, president of the EU leaders’ council, and Ursula von der Leyen, the head of the EU’s executive arm, as well as with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. The visit could not come at a more delicate time. Tensions between the two sides escalated over the past week after Turkey publicly told millions of migrants and asylum seekers hosted on its soil that it won’t stand in the way if they want to head for Europe.

As thousands flocked toward the Greek border, clashes erupted with security forces seeking to hold them back and competing narratives faced off on social media. The images of desperate people gathered at the frontier stirred memories of the migration crisis of 2015 that fueled support for right-wing populists across the EU.

In reality, while the risk was there, Erdogan did not follow through on the rhetoric and the EU is a far less welcoming place now.

Erdogan argues that Turkey deserves help dealing with the fallout from the conflict in Syria and in trying to persuade the Russian-backed government to halt its attacks on civilians.

His latest comments are likely to irk EU governments, which last week condemned Turkey’s “use of migratory pressure for political purposes” and pledged to back frontline states. Von der Leyen praised Greece’s approach as “Europe’s shield” even when its methods invited criticism in some quarters.

Greece has been Europe’s weakest link over the past decade as its most indebted economy, one very much reliant on tourism at a time when the coronavirus is messing with travel and panic keeps people home.

Ahead of her meeting with Erdogan, von der Leyen said that the EU is better prepared for a fresh wave of migration than in 2015, in a likely retort to the Turkish president’s threats. She defended the EU’s capacities pointing to help sent to Greece, though she cautioned that the bloc was “still not prepared enough.”

Erdogan wants to share the burden of hosting the world’s largest refugee population -- it’s a key leverage he holds over the EU. He has demanded more financial help and wants the EU to make good on its pledge of visa-free travel for Turkish citizens in return for keeping refugees within his country. Turkey is the world’s biggest host of displaced people, with more than 3.5 million Syrians already on its soil, and as a NATO member it would also like the military alliance flex its muscle more.

The current financial arrangement with Turkey, struck in 2016, helped stem Europe’s biggest refugee wave since World War II. It stopped displaced Syrians from entering the EU via Greece after the flow of people unleashed long-lasting consequences, not least weakening the political position of Germany’s Angela Merkel, the region’s undisputed leader over 15 years.

On Sunday, Erdogan repeated his assessment that the “EU hasn’t delivered on its commitments” to Turkey regarding refugees.

Erdogan’s Real EU Threat Lies on Border to Syria, Not Greece

In truth, the issues unearthed back in 2015 have never been adequately resolved -- differences were at best papered over. The inflows continue, borders have been tested and the EU has failed to agree on a migration management system that would split newcomers between member states.

This means that anyone who crosses from Turkey’s border into Greece is likely to be trapped there, further straining Europe’s most indebted state just as a viral outbreak threatens to derail its fragile economic recovery.

Greece has a new center-right government, which ousted the left-wing populist Alexis Tsipras and has a mandate to take a much more hard-line approach to illegal immigration. Its government, as things stand, is grappling with a backlash from inhabitants of overflowing refugee camps in eastern islands, who in their anger have attacked both police officers and migrants.

(Updates with von der Leyen comments in 10th paragraph.)

--With assistance from Selcan Hacaoglu and Ian Wishart.

To contact the reporters on this story: Tugce Ozsoy in Istanbul at tozsoy1@bloomberg.net;Viktoria Dendrinou in Brussels at vdendrinou@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Blaise Robinson at brobinson58@bloomberg.net, ;Onur Ant at oant@bloomberg.net, Amy Teibel, Taylan Bilgic

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