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21st Apr 2019

Interview

Turkey wants quick EU deal on refugee resettlement

  • Davutoglu (c) with the Austrian and German leaders at EU summit in November (Photo: consillium.europa.eu)

Turkey hopes to agree a new deal on refugee resettlements at the next EU summit, amid a broader “reset” in relations.

The resettlement deal could be concluded when Turkish PM Ahmet Davutoglu meets EU leaders in Brussels on 7 March, Turkey’s EU ambassador, Selim Yenel, told EUobserver in an interview.

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  • Yenel (r) with EU enlargement commissioner Johannes Hahn (Photo: ec.europa.eu)

They already agreed an “action plan” last year under which Turkey will reduce the number of migrants coming to Greece in return for €3 billion and political concessions.

Under the resettlement project, a group of refugee-friendly EU states, led by Germany, will take Syrians who have “temporary protection” status directly from Turkey.

Yenel said some EU leaders want to see migrant numbers go down under the first plan before they sign up to the second one.

“The numbers are going down, not just because of the weather … I know a lot of people in Europe want them to go down to zero. They won’t go down to zero. But they will keep going down,” he said.

He added that, for Turkey, resettlements and migrant numbers go “hand-in-hand”.

“If they [refugees] know they can apply to go to the EU on a regular basis - that’s an incentive not to go down the hard route, so this will help with reducing numbers to Greece,” he said.

He said talks were ongoing on details of the new project.

The EU states have not yet indicated how many people they would be willing to take.

But they are discussing other questions, Yenel said: “Are they [refugees] going to come from camps or outside the camps? We have about 270,000 people in the camps and the rest [2.4 million] scattered round the country. How do you choose them? Do families come first, of those already in the EU?”

'Regain trust'

The diplomat said the refugee crisis had prompted a “reset” in EU relations.

Turkey’s EU accession talks have stalled over the past 10 years. Relations have also deteriorated over EU criticism of Turkey on democratic standards and human rights.

But with both sides in need of each other’s help, the EU has promised to speed up Turkey’s visa-free travel application and to open several new “chapters” in the accession process.

“Over the past 10 years … we were forgotten, put to one side. Suddenly we’ve been remembered,” Yenel said.

"The irony is that we now have to help the EU stay together ... We’re back on the way to being a real [accession] candidate. I’m calling it a reset in our relationship.”

Turkey’s former EU ambassador previously told EUobserver the EU had “lost its leverage” in Turkey.

Some Turkish officials also worry that France will renege on the EU visa-free pledge.

But Yenel said if the EU fulfils its promises then Turkey will become more open to pro-European reform.

“If the EU wants to regain the leverage they lost then we have to regain trust. Right now, what the EU says doesn’t have any impact. But if we regain trust, get the accession process moving again, what the EU says will have more weight,” he said.

'Security nightmare'

Russian air strikes in Syria have also given the EU and Turkey common cause, he said.

For Ankara, the strikes are designed to help the Syrian regime, Russia’s main ally in the Middle East, to stay in power. But they're also designed to push more refugees toward Turkey and the EU in order to stir trouble.

Yenel said that ever since Turkey last year shot down a Russian jet which, it says, violated its airspace, Russian leader Vladimir Putin has been trying “to make life difficult for us”.

The Russian strikes have already prompted tens of thousands more people to flee toward Europe.

Many are stuck in Syria after Turkey closed its border. It let in about 7,000 of them, mostly women and children. But security screening uncovered four would-be suicide bombers in the group.

The weekend marked a shaky pause in fighting.

But Yenel said if Russian-Syrian forces end up retaking the city of Aleppo in northern Syria it could create “hundreds of thousands” of new refugees.

“If we have a huge wave … it would be a security nightmare,” he said.

“If they go into the EU and let’s say that our ‘action plan’ doesn’t work, then what happens in Europe - shutting down borders, chaos, [German leader Angela] Merkel weakening, losing elections, the right coming back to power?”

Refugee births

The Turkish diplomat gave a snapshot of Syrian refugees in Turkey.

He said 1.2 million of them are under 18 years old and almost half a million are under six years old.

Turkey recently passed a law to let refugees take up jobs, with a view to getting Syrian teachers into schools so that Syrian children can study their own curriculum.

The ambassador said Syrian women gave birth to 150,000 children in Turkey since the war began.

Cyprus asks to make Turkish an EU language

Cyprus has asked the Dutch EU presidency to make Turkish an official EU language, in a “gesture” that could help reunification and improve EU-Turkey relations.

Analysis

Russia's Syria tactics imperil EU-Turkey migrant plan

Events in Syria pose questions if the EU-Turkey migrant plan is still relevant. They show the need for solidarity. But there’s little of that and few options on how to stop Turkey's “nightmare.”

Press crackdown could sour EU-Turkey summit

An Istanbul court ordered the takeover of the management of opposition daily Zaman. The EU is urged to react, three days ahead of Monday's migration talks.

Opinion

Erdogan, prince of Europe, took my newspaper Zaman

After the forced takeover of Zaman, a daily critical of Turkey's president, its Brussels correspondent Selcuk Gultasli was told to stop writing. He asks the EU not to bargain with its values.

EU plans tougher asylum rules

Asylum seekers' applications to be rejected if they move around within the EU, under new asylum rules proposed by the EU Commission.

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