Refugee Crisis

Rapprochement with Turkey

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan (left) with European Council President Donald Tusk ahead of a meeting at the E.U. Council in Brussels on Monday. 
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Turkey has so far done little to stop refugees entering the European Union, but that could change with financial incentives and the prospect of resuming Turkey’s E.U. accession talks.

  • Facts


    • About 2.5 million refugees are currently in Turkey. Around 350,000 of them have made their way to the E.U. this year.
    • A joint Turkish and E.U. plan calls for Turkey to tighten controls along the border with Greece.
    • In return, the E.U. is offering to ease visa requirements for Turkish citizens.
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The numbers are alarming.

About 350,000 refugees, mostly from Syria, have left Turkey for the European Union in the last nine months alone.

Yet, according to the European Commission, Turkish security forces have only managed to stop 50,000 people from entering the E.U. – an untenable state of affairs for the Europeans.

During his visit to Brussels on Monday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan met with senior E.U. officials to discuss the crisis – and took the opportunity to emphasis his country’s key role.

“We agree that the solution cannot happen through having Russia, allied with President Assad, bombing legitimate opposition forces:”

Donald Tusk, European Council President

Turkey and the E.U. agreed on a plan to address the unprecedented flow of refugees, but also traded some barbs after the talks.

“The situation where hundreds of thousands of people are fleeing to the E.U. via Turkey must be stopped,” European Council President Donald Tusk said after the meeting with Mr. Erdogan.

“It is vital that the E.U. better manage its border and we expect Turkey to do the same,” he said.

Mr. Erdogan, for his part, pointed out that Turkey had taken in 10 times more refugees than the European Union and spent close to €8 billion on housing them.

Turkey and the E.U. announced a new working group would be set up to discuss all issues connected to migration.

“In order to solve this crisis we discussed financial assistance, border management, the fight against smugglers, integration policies and visa liberalization,” Mr. Tusk said.

President Erdogan also applied pressure on the E.U. to resume negotiations over Turkey’s accession to the bloc. Europe’s fate was impossible to separate from Turkey’s, he said.

Mr. Tusk said that the 28-member bloc was prepared to strengthen cooperation over the longer term in talks on Turkey’s candidacy to join the Union.

Turkish accession talks have been on ice for a decade due to stumbling blocks like the divided island of Cyprus, and the reluctance of some member states, including Germany, to see it join the E.U.

Mr. Erdogan also took the opportunity to reinforce his argument that the Kurdish party, the PKK, is a terrorist organization. “This terrorist organization should not be given the chance to achieve some sort of cloak of legitimacy under the guise of fighting ISIS [Islamic State] in Syria,” he said.

Kurdish forces have been fighting the jihadist group in northern Syria and Iraq.

turkey_refugee camp_Suruc district near Sanliurfa_Turkey_Sedat Suna_dpa
A refugee camp in the Suruc distric near Sanliurfa in Turkey. Source: DPA/Sedat Suna


After decades of hostilities, a fragile peace process with Kurdish separatists in Turkey has recently fallen apart. Ankara has once again launched a military campaign against Kurdish strongholds along the border with Syria.

There are about 12 million Kurds in Turkey, representing about 15 percent of the population. Turkish attacks on PKK positions have been met with disapproval from many European politicians.

Observers say Mr. Erdogan’s tough stance is playing to his home audience, with elections due in Turkey on November 1, the second round this year.

Mr. Erdogan is also looking to leverage Turkey’s increasingly key role in the region between the refugee crisis and the war in neighboring Syria.

For its cooperation, Ankara wants help with establishing a buffer and no-fly zone in northern Syria. After Monday’s talks, European Parliament President Martin Schulz said that the United Nations Security Council would have the final say on any such move.

The surprise launch of Russian airstrikes in Syria last week has further muddied the waters in an already highly complex situation and led to a cooling in previously warm relations between Moscow and Ankara.

Russia’s insistence that any solution to the conflict must involve embattled Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad has foxed Turkey and the West, who want to see him go.

“The root cause of the refugee crisis today is the war that has been taking place in Syria and the state-sponsored terror actions which have been carried out by Assad himself,” Mr. Erdogan said on Monday.

“We agree that the solution cannot happen through having Russia, allied with President Assad, bombing legitimate opposition forces,” Mr. Tusk said.

The Russian ambassador to Turkey has been summoned twice in recent days over violations of Turkish airspace by Russian fighter jets.

NATO member Turkey and the U.S. have warned they would shoot down Russian warplanes if they continue to violate NATO airspace.

Meanwhile, on Monday, Turkey and the E.U. agreed to ramp up cooperation to help Turkey better secure its border with Greece. Turkish and Greek coast guards are set to begin joint patrols of the eastern Aegean Sea coordinated by the European Union’s Frontex border protection agency.

Until now, the mood between the Greek and Turkish coast guards in the Aegean has been marked by confrontation. The two countries have been involved in disputes over sovereignty zones in the Aegean for decades, a conflict triggered by the suspected presence of oil and gas reserves in the region.

But there have also been disputes over the military presence on a few Greek islands and Turkish territorial claims to uninhabited Aegean islands that belong to Greece. The conflict over sovereignty rights has repeatedly led to risky aerial chases involving Greek and Turkish fighter pilots.

That controversy is now getting in the way of maritime search and rescue campaigns. The E.U.’s Frontex border protection agency has been deployed at the Greek-Turkish land border, at sea and in the airspace over the Aegean since 2006. The efficiency of the sorties has suffered in the past because Turkey did not accept Frontex as a cooperation partner.

Turkey has also shown little willingness to take back refugees. In fact, the Turkish government is pleased about every refugee who moves on to the European Union. Under a treaty signed in 2013, Ankara agreed to take back migrants who reach the bloc through Turkey.

Turkey has had a similar treaty with Greece for years, but it has been ineffective in practice. Last year, Greece requested repatriation in more than 9,600 cases. The Turkish authorities took back only six migrants.

In return for the agreement, the E.U. promised to ease visa requirements for Turkish citizens, a pledge that may now be fast tracked given the global situation. The existing agreement only comes into full force in 2017, and it also does not apply to political refugees with a right to asylum in the European Union.

Turkey has had a similar treaty with Greece for years, but it has been ineffective in practice. Last year, Greece requested repatriation in more than 9,600 cases. The Turkish authorities took back only six migrants.

The E.U. has also indicated it will help Turkey with housing refugees, pledging to help build up to six new refugee camps to accommodate several hundred thousand, said European Commission insiders.

Brussels recently pledged Turkey €1 billion ($1.12 billion) in part to help integrate Syrian refugees into the Turkish labor market and European Parliament President Mr. Schulz has indicated that more funds may be made available at short notice.


Gerd Höhler is a Handelsblatt correspondent based in Athens, Greece. Thomas Ludwig is a Handelsblatt correspondent in Brussels. Matthias Streit is a trainee with the Georg-von-Holtzbrinck-School for business journalism. He has experience working for print, online and radio outlets. Siobhán Dowling covers German politics for Handelsblatt Global Edition. To contact the authors:, and

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