Europe ‘lacks leverage’ over Turkey amid Erdogan migrant threat

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks during the extended meeting with provincial heads of ruling Justice and Development (AK) Party in Ankara, Turkey, on October 10, 2019.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks during the extended meeting with provincial heads of ruling Justice and Development (AK) Party in Ankara, Turkey, on October 10, 2019. Adem Altan, AFP

As European governments decry Turkey’s offensive on Kurdish forces in Syria, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told the EU on Thursday that Ankara will let millions of migrants flow into the continent unless Europe halts its criticism. Analysts say the threat exemplifies the lack of influence European powers have over Turkey.


Turkey’s military assault on Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) provoked a wave of condemnation from European capitals as it entered its second day on Thursday, including French President Emmanuel Macron’s call for Ankara to “put an end to it as quickly as possible”.

But Erdogan is holding a Damoclean sword over Europe: “Hey EU, wake up. I say it again: If you try to frame our operation as an invasion, our task is simple – we will open the doors and send 3.6 million migrants to you,” the Turkish strongman said in a speech to his party the same day.

His country hosts 3.6 million refugees from the Syrian Civil War – and in a 2016 deal with the EU, Ankara agreed to stop these migrants from going to Europe in exchange for €6 billion and visa-free travel for Turks.

“Have you ever kept any promise you gave us so far? No!” Erdogan continued, addressing the EU.

When a reporter asked Macron for his views on Erdogan’s browbeating rhetoric, the French president said that he had “nothing more” to add to his previous comments, with an incensed look on his face.

‘Erdogan saw weakness in European powers’

European countries “need to co-operate with Turkey on key issues, such as managing refugees”, said Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, director of the German Marshall Fund’s Ankara bureau. This is a key reason why they “don’t have much leverage” over Ankara.

“It’s likely that Erdogan would make life difficult for Europe if Europe made life difficult for him,” noted Howard Eissenstat, a Turkey specialist at St. Lawrence University and the Project on Middle Eastern Democracy.

“Turkey is committed to its course of action and the die has been cast; even the kind of stringent sanctions contemplated by some US senators wouldn’t be sufficient to change the contours of Turkey’s policy at this stage,” Eissenstat continued.

Erdogan sees the PKK – the Kurdish group linked to the SDF and classified as a terrorist group by both Turkey and the United States – as an “existential threat to Turkish territorial integrity, and he’s not concerned about Western opinion for this reason”, added Reilly Barry, a Turkey researcher at Harvard University.

This is not the first time Erdogan has engaged in ferocious diplomatic disputes with European countries. He accused German Chancellor Angela Merkel of using “Nazi measures” when Germany stopped some Turkish ministers from campaigning there for a 2017 referendum, and he barred the Dutch ambassador from returning to the country after the Netherlands enacted similar measures the same year.

“Erdogan saw weakness in European powers when they let such insults slide,” said Simon Waldman, a Turkey specialist at King’s College London and British think-tank the Henry Jackson Society.

“This is the exact opposite of Russia,” he continued. “After Turkey downed a Russian jet flying by the border of Syria in 2015, the ferocious response of [President Vladmir] Putin and the heavy sanctions Russia imposed earned Moscow Erdogan’s respect.”

Turkey ‘forgetting’ priority of IS group

Nevertheless, this time European leaders have made it clear that they see Turkey’s actions as flying in the face of their interests, most notably when it comes to ongoing efforts to eliminate the Islamic State (IS) group.

“Turkey is forgetting that the priority of the international community in Syria is the fight against Daesh and terrorism,” Macron complained, using an Arabic term for the IS group.

Indeed, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces hold thousands of jihadist fighters in prisons across the northeast of the country. The Syrian Kurdish autonomous region said in a statement on Thursday that a Turkish bombardment hit a prison containing captured IS group fighters, which would appear to contradict Ankara’s promises not to compromise the campaign against the terrorist group – although the statement made no mention of any prisoners escaping.

“Turkey wouldn’t consciously do anything that would cause the release of ISIS (another name for the IS group) fighters,” Eissenstat said. However, the concern would be that any “destabilisation” caused by Turkish actions in Syria “might result in their inadvertent release”, he continued.

‘Refugees will be their problem too’

Ankara’s plans to repatriate some of its refugees to so-called “safe zones” in northeastern Syria is another issue that has sparked antagonism with Europe. The Turkish government says it plans to enact this initiative with international funding. However, the EU insisted on Wednesday it will not give a penny of funding for it, prompting Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu to echo Erdogan’s migrant threat by saying that if Europe refuses to hand over money, “refugees will be their problem too”.

Such a programme would “clearly violate international law” by “returning refugees against their will”, noted Amy Austin Holmes, a fellow in the Middle East Program at the Wilson Center in Washington, DC. “The Syrians themselves presumably want to go back to their region of origin – not to a zone in the north occupied by the Turkish military – and I would hope that Europe speaks out strongly on this issue.”

But while European leaders are “no doubt outraged” by Turkey’s actions – including the attendant prospects of forced repatriation to so-called safe zones and the risk of jihadist prisoners escaping – they still “lack the political will” to take “any meaningful action”, Waldman said.

He ascribed this to not only European leaders’ desire to “prevent the influx of additional refugees”, but also to “a lack of ideas as to what Europe can do”.

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