Why the EU migrant deal matters to Turkey’s Erdogan - even if it fails

A deal which involves Turkey controlling the flow of Syrian migrants to Europe entered a new phase of volatility on 5th May, just a day after the European Commission recommended visa-free travel for Turkish nationals seeking to go to Europe. News broke that Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu had been forced to resign.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, irked by his premier's dominance of the limelight and failure to sufficiently consult on the EU accord, stepped in to pour cold water on the agreement, urging Europe and Turkey to part ways.

Back to the poker table

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan delivers a speech to lawyers at the Presidential Complex in Ankara, Turkey on April 5, 2016.
Kayhon Ozer | AFP | Getty Images
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan delivers a speech to lawyers at the Presidential Complex in Ankara, Turkey on April 5, 2016.

The reason behind the Turkish president's maneuvers is to force European authorities to take a more accommodating approach to Turkish legislation and practices. Erdogan calculates that Europe needs Turkey more than vice-versa, given the threat of a renewed deluge of Syrian migrants to EU member states.

But Erdogan is all too aware he would benefit from a successful migrant deal. The lifting of long-standing and humiliating visa restrictions for Turkish nationals would represent one of the government's most significant diplomatic feats to date.

An imminent or freshly-adopted visa deal could help secure the extra votes Erdogan would like for a new constitution. Either through a referendum or following new parliamentary elections later this year, the president is seeking to adopt new legislation which would arm him with full, formal executive powers. Although Erdogan already exercises immense de-facto power, Turkish society is heavily polarised between supporters and opponents of the president.

Aid promised by the EU as part of the migrant deal is also a major factor - especially as Turkey is struggling to foot the bill of 2.75 million registered Syrian refugees. However, the 6 billion euros ($6.7 billion) in aid promised by the EU will be managed by international NGOs and UN agencies and not Turkey's own national authorities

Expecting rigidity to pay off

The European Parliament's requirement for Ankara to follow EU policy and legislation when it comes to the fight against terrorism and data protection is unpalatable for Erdogan. The government argues that limited personal data protection is in the interest of national security and to keep public order.

While Turkey clearly faces a more acute threat from terrorism than other NATO member states, Erdogan uses sweeping legislation to muzzle and arrest critics while strengthening his grip on power.

Even in the event that the EU migrant deal collapses, Erdogan will have only suffered a partial defeat which he would in any case paint as a moral and practical victory. The president's messaging is geared towards Turkish nationalists who will play an important role in determining the outcome of new elections or a referendum. Standing up to Brussels together with tackling the armed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) resonates with many Turks.

The EU accession mirage

Paradoxically, despite Erdogan's increasingly decisive drift away from political liberalism, the EU has agreed to resuscitate accession talks as part of the migrant deal of March 2016. Fears in Turkey over instability and/or Erdogan's excesses partly account for substantial public support for EU accession. A poll conducted by Realta Research Company across 18 provinces in April 2015 shows that 61.8 percent of the Turkish public support membership of the European club.

Yet, the migrant deal cannot disguise the reality that the likelihood of Turkey's eventual accession to the EU has diminished over the years. This is not just because of the divided status of Cyprus, economic and political pressures in EU member states, or European security and job fears. Nor is it simply about islamophobia in Europe. Despite the occasional lip service, Erdogan has done little to demonstrate he is interested in joining a club whose legislation and norms conflict with his personalised style of rule.

Anthony Skinner is Director and Head of Political Strategy at Verisk Maplecroft.

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