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The EU's Historic Cave to Turkey

Walter Russell Mead

The weakness of the European Union has never been so exposed as it now is by the one-sided deal it signed with Turkey over the weekend.

Sensing profound desperation and weakness in his counterparts’ bargaining position, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was reported to have driven a hard bargain at the weekend summit. He appeared to walk away with almost everything he wanted: “an initial” €3 billion in assistance for improving the lives of Syrian refugees already in Turkey in order to discourage them from moving to Europe, with top-ups to be negotiated in the future; visa-free travel for Turks to Europe within a year, pending progress on Turkey’s tightening its border security; a re-opening of negotiations for EU accession; and biannual summits between Turkey and the EU to monitor progress.

European leaders may think that the deal, despite its shortcomings, will begin to stem the flow of refugees and migrants streaming into the continent. Unfortunately, however, the chances are high that the agreement will not succeed in stopping the flow. Turkey has never been entirely in control of its southern border, where Kurdish militants have been active for many years. If the U.S. cannot control the Rio Grande, Turkey will have even greater difficulty with the wild and unsettled border it shares with Syria and Iraq.

Following contentious snap elections that saw Erdogan’s AKP claw back a majority for itself in parliament, Prime Minister Davutoglu was keen to focus on what Turkish diplomacy had wrested for his voters. “Today is a historic day in our accession process to the EU,” he told reporters. “I am grateful to all European leaders for this new beginning.” In reality, however, that particular concession by the EU was probably the most meaningless. At this point, Erdogan’s authoritarian government is as bad a fit for Europe as ever, and the Turkish leader has little interest in giving European human rights law any currency in a country where opposition newspapers are regularly closed down and enterprising journalists are jailed.

Nevertheless, the contrast between the arrogance the EU displays when it feels strong—labeling settlement-made Israeli goods, barring desperately poor farmers in Africa from using GMO crops to enhance their productivity and profits, imposing human rights sanctions on countries too small or too far away to retaliate—and the sweeping concessions it makes when it’s reeling, is highly instructive. The deal makes a mockery of European values, it will divide Europe further, and it rewards Erdogan’s bad behavior. Because Europe has no real policy on Syrian refugees and no means of developing one in anything like a timely fashion, it was reduced to paying virtually any price Turkey chose to name.

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