Turkey's threat to scrap refugee deal may fail

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu

Turkish Foreign Minister's recent veiled threat that Turkey could give up blocking the flow of migrants into Europe if the EU fails to honor the refugee deal is unlikely to bear any fruit, analysts have said.

It is absolutely improbable that the threat would work, Faruk Sen, President of the Turkish European Foundation for Education and Scientific Studies (TAVAK), told Xinhua.

In remarks that looked like a thinly veiled threat, Turkish FM Mevlut Cavusoglu said the EU is behaving as if it has forgotten that the wave of refugees towards Europe had been stopped thanks to Ankara's efforts in the past.

Turkey officially hosts around 3.6 million refugees, some 3.2 million of whom are Syrians.

Calling on the EU to do its part in line with a jointly signed refugee deal, the minister said in remarks to a local daily last week that "should our security forces stop their efforts to block migrants heading for Europe, the Aegean Sea would once again become a route for illegal immigration."

Turkey inked a refugee deal with the EU in March 2016 to prevent the flow of illegal immigration toward Europe in return for visa-free travel for its citizens, revival of its long-stalled EU accession talks and financial aid for refugees in Turkey.

According to the UN refugee agency, a total of 844,000 migrants, the majority of whom are Syrians, illegally immigrated to Greece via Turkey in 2015. Some also illegally entered Greece and Bulgaria through the Turkish border in Thrace.

Following the deal, the number of migrants to Europe has sharply fallen largely thanks to measures taken by Ankara along its Aegean coast and its border in Thrace.

Cavusoglu also added that the EU should, keeping that mind, swiftly fulfill its responsibilities in accord with the deal.

Ankara appears to attach particular importance to the right of visa-free travel to the EU for its citizens, at which Turkish government in the past had also aimed.

Top Turkish officials including President Recep Tayyip Erdogan have several times signaled that Ankara could scrap the deal unless Turkish citizens are granted visa-free travel.

However, the analysts believe it's not hopeful for Cavusoglu's warning to work out.

Sen, who previously headed the Essen-based Turkish Research Center when he lived in Germany for years, feels it is too late.

"There is zero chance that Turkish citizens would be granted visa-free travel to the EU," stated Istanbul-based TAVAK's Sen. "Turkey should have pushed for the visa-free travel to be also effective when the deal was concluded."

The EU argues, however, that Ankara must fulfill a total of 72 benchmarks under the deal that would allow its legislation to comply with the EU acquisition.

"Under the prevailing circumstances, visa-free travel for Turkish citizens is unlikely to be granted any time soon," Faruk Logoglu, a former diplomat who held top posts in the Turkish Foreign Ministry, said to Xinhua.

"Because for the EU, Turkey has still not met the conditions set to this end," he added.

Many of the benchmarks have already been fulfilled by Ankara, but EU urges that there are still several benchmarks Turkey needs to meet such as narrowing the definition of terrorism in the criminal law.

Turkey opposes the EU view, saying its fight against terrorism would be negatively affected if it were to narrow the definition of terrorism.

Turkey has been fighting against Kurdish separatism at home for decades.

Logoglu feels it is also unlikely that Turkey would withdraw from the refugee deal as that would lead to a major crisis with the EU.

"It would also mean the end of EU funds for the refugees in Turkey," he remarked.

Under the deal, the EU should pay Turkey by the end of this year 3 billion euros (about 3.5 billion US dollars) for the Syrian refugees in Turkey.

So far, the 28-nation bloc is estimated to have actually delivered less than 1 billion euros, although the EU has already allocated a sum of 2.2 billion euros for various projects.

The EU is to pay Ankara another 3 billion euros for projects on Syrians next year.

According to the deal, Turkey agreed to stop all the migrants who would illegally enter Greece or Bulgaria via its territory, while the EU would in return admit the same number of Syrian refugees in Turkey.

Disappointed with the EU's attitude, Cavusoglu had said earlier this year that Turkey was no longer accepting illegal immigrants back.

Cavusoglu's remarks came at a time when the bilateral ties between Turkey and the EU have been rather strained.

The relations have particularly soured since Turkey's failed coup last July following which the Turkish government imposed a state of emergency.

European Parliament last month voted to accept a proposal of 2016 Commission Report, which is suggesting the suspension of accession talks with Turkey if constitutional changes endorsed in the April 16 referendum go ahead.

However, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker warned at the beginning of this month that suspending accession talks would be wrong, taking the refugee issue into consideration.

Turkey has long complained it is being unfairly treated by the EU. The country applied to join the EU in 1987 and started the accession talks for full membership in 2005.

The EU would have to take more responsibility concerning refugees, Juncker said to a German broadcaster, according to the local media.

Turkey has on its part accused some EU countries such as Germany of acting as a safe haven for terrorist groups Turkey has been fighting against.

Amid rising tension with some EU countries earlier this year, Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu had also threatened to "blow the mind" of Europe by allowing 15,000 refugees to flock to Europe each month.

Some European leaders seem to feel that a major influx of refugees from Turkey is not very probable any longer.

According to German weekly Der Spiegel last month, Johannes Hahn, EU Commissioner for Enlargement, argued that the EU is no longer vulnerable to blackmail from Turkey on the refugee issue.

Noting that the situation on the ground is now entirely different, Hahn reportedly said the risk was low that tens of thousands would suddenly make their way from Turkey to Europe if Ankara were to open the borders.

In 2015, European politicians felt threatened by the mass arrivals as anti-refugee sentiment has risen on the continent.

Since then, Greece and Bulgaria have put up fences along sizable portions of their borders with Turkey.

Some other Balkan countries as well as Hungary did also the same.

Various reports penned by Turkish researchers in recent years have argued that many of the Syrians are here to stay.

Turkey's chief ombudsman Seref Malkoc also said at the beginning of the year that some 80 percent of the Syrians should be expected to stay in Turkey, judging from data regarding refugee behavior in the world.

"The UN data tell us that 80 percent of those who fled their country in mass migration remain in the country they went to," he said.

According to a poll conducted in spring by the local Humanitarian Development Foundation (INGEV) and IPSOS Social Research Institute, 52 percent of the Syrians see their future in Turkey.

Some 74 percent of the Syrians in Turkey want to become Turkish citizens, and 44 percent of the respondents said they "absolutely do not want to move," while 42 percent would wish to go to Europe if they had a chance.

In his remarks to the daily Turkiye, Turkish Foreign Minister also argued that the EU needs Turkey as a partner not only due to the refugee issue, but also to better tackle challenges in an uncertain global environment.

Ankara is pushing the EU for a leaders' summit by the end of this year, as the minister revealed in his statement.

TAVAK's Sen is optimistic that such an EU-Turkey summit may be held.

However, the summit would be for show aimed mainly at pleasing Ankara, he maintained, noting that EU's Juncker had recently said the door should not be closed to Turkey.

Logoglu believes Turkey's top diplomats remarks may also be aimed at achieving some foreign policy gains ahead of potential early general elections.

Arguing Turkey has badly failed in foreign policy in recent years, he stated that any amelioration in ties with the EU, especially the opening of some new chapters in EU membership negotiations, would have a positive impact on politics at home.

Turkey is scheduled to hold both a general election and a presidential election in 2019.

Turkey has also long been pushing for the opening chapters of "23-Judiciary and Fundamental Rights" and "24-Justice, Freedom and Security" in the accession negotiations with the EU.

Given the EU's harsh criticism about Turkey's democracy, it is not expected that these two chapters, blocked by France and Cyprus, would be opened any time soon.

Brussels has often criticized Ankara for crackdown on dissidents, growing authoritarianism and violations of the rule of law following the attempted coup.