Visa difficult days

There is talk today that Turkey may be offered easier access to European membership should she stem the flow of Syrian refugees coming through the country and thus sort out what is fast becoming the biggest threat to the Union in its history. This is rather an interesting proposition, mostly because it looks at the issue from a Eurocentric angle- assuming two things,  (a) that the prize of European membership is indubitably worth having and (b) that Turkey can indeed shut its border with Syria.

Mrs Merkel says that Turkey has requested EU aid to the tune of $2.2 billion, apparently. She is due in Turkey this weekend. I find it astonishing that there is any deliberation about this- the more aid Turkey is given and the more assistance it gets, the easier it is to keep the refugees near their home so they can eventually go back. Instead of making a noble effort to help (isn’t it our moral duty?) or offering a Cameron-cloaked calculated bribe to keep the refugees where they are, the EU has dangled a podgy carrot and expects Turkey to bray like a donkey in gullible, nay, even in priapic excitement. It simply will not happen. It is absurd politics and utterly insulting. The only donkey in this equation is tethered in Brussels.


In fact, the dead-slow progress of entry negotiations has soured Turkey’s interest in joining the Union and it’s already looking elsewhere. This is not to say that Turkey has neither the right nor the continued opportunity to join eventually, but simply that it has responded with a shrug to the “go slow.” It has seen other lesser-nations leap-frog into accession and it feels rightly put out. In addition, it is not likely to get excited about joining a club that has so publicly and shamelessly criticised its religious and cultural identity. (Islam has actually played a major role in the formation of modern Europe- we would not have parachutes, torpedoes or distillation without the impact of islamic research- in short, there would be no drams of whiskey in Scotland, and precious little Plato, without Islam) We have played this game foolishly if we now expect a proud country to bow down to our coquettish advances. In the end, we in Europe will be the loser if Turkey rejects our advances and forges alliances of its own in defiance of European membership. Byzantium, Constantinople or present day Istanbul remains a European City and should take its proper place geographically and historically with the other great cities of Europe. More than that, we desperately need Turkey’s help managing the coasts. The first practical link between Turkey and Europe should not be a pointless carrot, but the addition of Turkey to the Frontex system of EU coast patrols. This would be the first step towards full integration with Europe’s security system which is inevitable anyway if we want to be realistic about policing the mediterranean. At the same time, the EU needs to relax its demands about Cyprus. Now is not the time to deal with the broader resolution of the Cypriot situation and we need to be offering Turkey support in its own struggle to define islam in the face of ISIL/ISIL – a stronger Turkey helps the EU.

As for the relationship with Syria, well that is more complex. It is astonishing that, despite the crisis, the rule remains that Syrians do not need to apply for a visa to enter the country and they have leave to remain there for 90 days without any issue. That makes for a strange situation, because, presumably, a person who has wandered into an hospitable country is not strictly-speaking a refugee. Turkey has taken in over 2 million Syrians (and about 300,000 Iraqis). When it comes to neighbourly good-will, Turkey has done well. As Erdogan has said of European efforts to accommodate Refugees, “They announce they’ll take in 30,000 to 40,000 refugees and then they are nominated for the Nobel for that. We are hosting two and a half million refugees but nobody cares.” 

If only it were that simple, though.


Just across the border from Turkey, there is the tomb of Suleyman Shah, the grandfather of Osman I the founder of the Ottoman empire and this, 16 miles into Syrian territory, remains Turkish land. It used to be guarded by 15 soldiers though today that has been increased to 30. Turkey would certainly fight if that territory were attacked or invaded.It also helps to explain the acceptance of a fairly chaotic border arrangement.

Despite the open border, however, and its interests across the border, Turkey has a fractious relationship with Damascus, has condemned Assad, and, indeed, severed official diplomatic links when the Turkish embassy closed in 2012. Added to this is long suspicion about Syria’s support for ASALA and for PKK, – until 1998 Syria openly hosted the PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan. In the last few years, there have been air-space violations and bombings in Hatay province. Syrian terrorists were caught with cylinders of Sarin gas.


But despite this, Erdogan has said, “we are not interested in war, but we’re not far from it either.” Reassuring and at the same time, Worrying.

Difficult to sit on the fence when the border is so long and the fence so insecure. But why move from there when a neighbour who has been scathing suddenly offers lollipops. It is not enough: that fence looks more inviting than the lure of joining the European Union. Personally, I think we would be the better off for having Turkey in Europe, but we have to work harder now to convince the Turks that we really want them. We cannot tease them with the scraps that fall from Merkel’s lusty table. They are wise to that – many of them have been working in Berlin for years, after all and we have all seen the way Germany has treated other southern European nations.

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