Migration Diplomacy: Readmission Agreement and Turkey-EU Refugee Statement

Migration Diplomacy:

Readmission Agreement and Turkey-EU Refugee Statement

By Prof. Ayhan Kaya Bilgi University

The Readmission Agreement (16 December 2013) and the Turkey-EU Refugee Statement (18 March 2016) were signed in a period in which many public discussions were taking place in the background ranging from the issues of Islamophobia, populism, ISIS recruits, radicalisation of Islam, or Islamization of radicalism in Europe to the process of Islamization and the ISIS and PKK threats becoming more visible in Turkey.

The JDP administration has partly perceived the Syrian refugees as a bargaining chip to be used when it is needed. It was used in making a deal with the EU in resolving the Refugee Crisis hitting the European Public.

Both agreements were exploited by the EU as well as Turkey to appease their populations with respect to the easing of the political and societal instability caused by the refugee crisis. The Justice and Development Party (JDP) government has instrumentalized the issues related to mobility of Turkish citizens and visa liberalization with the EU as a bargaining chip in domestic politics.

One could also witness the success of the strategic use of “migration diplomacy” as a bargaining tool over and during the membership negotiation process between the EU and Turkey.

The Turkish government accepted to start readmission negotiations, dating back to 2011 just before the general elections whereas the agreement was signed in 2013 prior to 2014 local elections. Such a manoeuvre seems to be adopted with a vision that the readmission agreement coupled with visa free debate would have the potential to attract public opinion resulting in the JDP’s electoral win. This has been a good example of instrumentalization of the readmission agreement within Turkish domestic politics. Similarly, one could also witness the success of the strategic use of “migration diplomacy” as a bargaining tool during the membership negotiation process between the EU and Turkey as well as for the electoral win of the JDP in the General Elections of 1 November 2015. The same debate was warmed up and discussed in public prior to the presidential election in June 2018.

It was also striking to see the return of debates about visa liberalization/facilitation between Turkey and the EU immediately prior to the general elections. The European Union has agreed to support an action plan with Turkey to stem the flow of refugees entering Europe in the second half of 2015. In accordance with this deal, the EU promised to pay around €6 billion in aid to Turkey to address the smuggling of persons across national borders, including those trying to cross into Europe by sea. The deal was finalized after the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, paid an official visit to Istanbul to meet President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on 18 October 2015. The European Union said it would ease visa restrictions on Turkish citizens traveling to Europe in return for Turkey’s cooperation. The deal was highly criticized in Turkey as well as in the EU as it was perceived by several circles as an “indecent proposal” made by the EU. The deal was an indication of the fact that the “principle-based normative EU” was partly replaced with an “interest-based EU”.

The Turkish government has partly perceived the Syrian refugees as a bargaining chip to be used when it is needed. It was used in making a deal with the EU in resolving the Refugee Crisis hitting the European public. This was the dominant line of bargaining between the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the German Chancellor Angela Merkel who had a meeting in Istanbul prior to the 1 November 2015 General elections. In the meeting, the two leaders had a mutual understanding of sharing the responsibility of refugees and financially supporting Turkey to better accommodate the refugees about providing them with opportunities of a better access to housing, education, health services and labour market. The attempt to instrumentalize the Syrian refugees appeared again prior to the 16 April 2017 Constitutional Amendments Referendum when there was a tension between Turkey and some European Union member states that did not let the JDP ministers and MPs do active campaigning and deliver public speeches to members of the Turkish diaspora with regards to the content of the Referendum. In the aftermath of growing diplomatic tension especially between Turkish politicians and their Dutch counterparts, Turkish Minister of Interior, Süleyman Soylu, threatened to send Europe “15.000 refugees each month” just a couple of days earlier than the first anniversary of the Turkey-EU Refugee Statement signed on 18 March 2016.[1] Soylu’s statements came after the very polemical analogy of President Erdoğan associating European politicians, such as the German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte with “Nazis”.[2]

The Syrian crisis poses a crucial threat to Ankara with regards to national security and self-preservation.

The Syrian crisis poses a crucial threat to Ankara with regards to national security and self-preservation. There is recently a growing political discourse on return and the attempts to combat the integration of returning jihadist terrorists who were previously recruited by ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria). The crisis has contributed further to the destabilization of political, social and economic spheres of life in Turkey, which has already been exposed to growing political and societal cleavages at domestic level as well as to the neo-Ottoman and Islamist forms of governance.

The fights in northern Syria in the Summer of 2014, next to the Turkish-Syrian border, made things more complicated in Turkey, and epitomized the struggle against ISIS.[3] ISIS members became actively involved in three major attacks against the HDP-related and left-wing mass demonstrations causing the death of more than 140 people. On 5 June 2015, ISIS members attacked the HDP (Peoples’ Democracy Party) rally in Diyarbakır killing 4 people and wounding 414 people. On 20 July 2015, ISIS suicide bombers exploded a bomb in Suruç, Urfa, a southeast province of Turkey, during a public demonstration in the open air organized by young activists, mostly university students, transferring aid from all around the country to the Kurds of Kobane whose denizens were fighting against ISIS. In the Suruç bombing, 32 people were killed and more than 100 people injured.[4] Eventually, ISIS organized the biggest terrorist attack in the history of the Republic at the Ankara Peace demonstrations on 10 October 2015 killing 102 people and injuring more than 300. The presence of ISIS has also affected Turkey’s relations with the West, due to the lack of support from the United States and Europe for Turkey’s position toward the Assad regime, and the increasing pressure on Turkey to participate in the International Coalition against ISIS. In other words, ISIS has not only been a threat to Turkish national and societal security but also it has influenced perceptions of Turkey as a reliable partner in the West.[5]

As for the EU, one should not forget the fact that the EU-Turkey statement has remained as a statement, and was not embraced by the entirety of the EU. It was perceived as a deal initiated by Germany under the presidency of the Netherlands in 2015 and 2016. The process of preparing the content of the deal including the quotas, responsibility sharing, and the return of “illegal migrants” was highly criticized by various stake holders such as some member states, NGOs, and scientific circles. The deal even provoked the Italian public to a degree that right-wing populist rhetoric escalated as it was believed by the Italians that the Statement mainly diverted the Balkan migration route to Africa at the expense of Italy. The statement was also criticized as it led to the pidgeon-holed the possibilities of reforming the Dublin III protocol (26 June 2013), which gives the main legal responsibility for processing the asylum applications of irregular migrants to the bordering states. Hence, migration diplomacy revolving around EU-Turkey Readmission Agreement, and especially EU-Turkey Refugee Statement has remained limited between a couple of individual EU member states and Turkey.


These three drivers have so far been very decisive in the formation of Turkey’s irregular migration policies. Despite all these political and ideological changes in the mind-set of the Turkish political elite, Turkey continued to collaborate with the EU on the issues related to management of refugee crisis since 2011. The EU-Turkey Refugee Statement enacted since 18 March 2016 seems to be the confirmation of the strong cooperation between the two sides. However, the source of cooperation between the EU and Turkey making the two sides work together is not values, but mutual interests. Hence, the EU-Turkey Refugee statement could be interpreted as an indication of the process of de-Europeanization, but not of Europeanization, as it was signed by the two sides whose main motivation was not European values, but rather mutual material interests.  

[1] For further information on this see http://www.euractiv.com/section/global-europe/news/turkey-threatens-to-send-europe-15000-refugees-a-month/ accessed on 5 April 2017.

[2] For further information on President Erdoğan’s Nazi analogy see  http://www.reuters.com/article/us-germany-turkey-idUSKBN16D1FO accessed on 5 April 2017.

[3] Hurriyet Daily News (2014) ‘Turkish police clash with Kobane protesters near Syria border’, http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/video-turkish-police-clash-with-kobane-protestersnear-syria-border.aspx?pageID=238&nID=75120&NewsCatID=341 accessed on 2 November 2016.

[4]“Suruc Massacre: ‘Turkish student’ was suicide bomber,” BBC News, July 22, 2015, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-33619043

[5] The Guardian (2014) ‘Can Turkey under Erdoğan any longer be deemed a reliable western ally?’ http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/dec/15/turkey-erdogan-western-ally Accessed 3 November 2016.