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Turkey's political turmoil may have implications for Europe's migrant crisis

Supporters of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan wave Turkish flags as they gather in Istanbul's central Taksim Square on July 19, 2016, in Istanbul, Turkey.
Kursat Bayhan | Getty Images
Supporters of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan wave Turkish flags as they gather in Istanbul's central Taksim Square on July 19, 2016, in Istanbul, Turkey.

Last week's failed military coup in Turkey has unleashed turmoil in the country, and the resulting tensions between it and its European neighbors could exacerbate Europe's festering migrant crisis.

Across the 28 member countries of the European Union, there are quiet concerns that should Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan continue his massive political purge and reinstitute the death penalty, it could have grave consequences for EU-Turkey relations, particularly in the area of migrant control.

A highly sensitive arrangement struck earlier this year between Ankara and the EU that slows the flow of migration from war-torn Syria and Iraq, which last year sent more than a million refugees to the continent. In return, Turkey was granted a range of financial and political incentives.

Greek Minister of Migration Policy Ioannis Mouzalas told CNBC this week that "we are deeply worried about the developments in our neighboring country. Anything that disturbs the Europe-Turkey agreement on refugees may increase the migration flows. We hope that this agreement will be respected," he said.

That pact has proven quite effective in reducing the flood of refugees to Europe. For the first six months of 2016, there were 360,000 illegal entries in the EU, higher than last year, but at a slower pace than before the compact was signed. The EU-Turkey deal, helped by the closure of a key border crossing between Greece and Macedonia, was the impetus behind the declining figures.


'Following the situation closely'

Frontex police escort migrants, who are being deported from Lesbos, onto a ferry before it returns to Turkey on April 4, 2016, in Lesbos, Greece.
Milos Bicanski | Getty Images
Frontex police escort migrants, who are being deported from Lesbos, onto a ferry before it returns to Turkey on April 4, 2016, in Lesbos, Greece.
"The refugee traffickers certainly [have an] easier job today than a week ago." -Efthimios Petrou, defense and security analyst

Turkey's unique geographical location places it at the nexus of Europe and the Middle East, making it integral to both European and U.S. foreign policy. Less than a decade ago, the country was considered on the fast track for accession to the EU — a process that stalled in recent years.

And since the surprise attempt last week to overthrow Erdogan's government failed, the embattled leader has responded ruthlessly. The resulting crackdown on the military, police and civil service has driven at least 60,000 from their jobs, Radio Free Europe estimated this week.

Erdogan's actions — in addition to his demand to have a U.S.-based cleric extradited for fomenting the coup — have put him on track for a confrontation with Western capitals. This week, the EU Foreign Affairs Council called upon Erdogan's government to fully comply with Turkey's constitutional order, and stressed the importance of the rule of law prevailing.

In response, European Commissioner Gunther Oettinger has ruled out visa-free travel to Europe for Turks this year.

For his part, Erdogan has dismissed European concerns, while raising the possibility Turkey would restore the death penalty to punish the coup's perpetrators, and worsening its divisions with the EU.

Turkey's shaky commitment to civil rights has stoked new concerns within Europe, where leaders fear a potential collapse of March's refugee arrangement. According to the agreement, the EU will provide 3 billion euros ($3.3 billion) annually to Turkey so that all illegal immigrants would receive shelter in Turkey.

Some European leaders fear further implementation of the migrant accord could be undermined by Turkey's crackdown. Tove Ernst, European Commission spokesperson for Migration, Home Affairs and Citizenship, told CNBC that "the Commission is following the situation in Turkey closely."

Currently, nearly 3 million Syrian refugees live in Turkey, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. If even a fraction of them were shipped to Europe, Ernst said it would cause "congestion" in host countries, especially neighboring Greece.


Greece in the balance

A supporter of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan waves a flag against an electronic billboard during a rally in Kizilay Square on July 18, 2016, in Ankara, Turkey.
Chris McGrath | Getty Images
A supporter of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan waves a flag against an electronic billboard during a rally in Kizilay Square on July 18, 2016, in Ankara, Turkey.

Greece, in the clutches of its own economic crisis, hosts just over 57,193 migrants, Greek Refugee Crisis Management Coordination Body's figures show. That puts both the Hellenic Republic and Germany — which shelters about 1 million migrants and processed nearly 284,000 new asylum requests in the first half of this year — in the hot seat should the Turkey accord collapse.

Embattled German Chancellor Angela Merkel, speaking in Berlin last Wednesday, said she saw no reason to suspend the EU's refugee pact with Turkey. "So far there is no indication that Turkey is not fulfilling its obligations," Merkel said.

Still, the deterioration of social and political conditions in Turkey are of equal concern to the 28-member bloc. President Erdogan has placed the country under a "state of emergency" for three months, aimed at averting a possible second military coup.

That may put a strain on resources needed to monitor the country's borders for potential security threats, experts say.

"The attention of the Turkish authorities has moved from the surveillance of the sea borders, and now they are focusing on how to prevail the order in the large urban centers," said Efthimios Petrou, a Greek defense and security analyst.

"The refugee traffickers certainly [have an] easier job today than a week ago," he said.

He added that desperate refugees may even attempt to sneak into Europe via Greece, especially if the situation in Turkey deteriorates.

"Nobody can say that there will be no further political instability in Turkey," he said. "At this stage, there is only one player in the chessboard," and that's Erdogan, Petrou said.