The Guardian view on Turkey: the EU’s ambivalent partner


Turkey has always had the potential to be at the diplomatic heart of the Syrian crisis. This week Turkey’s moment arrived; and it is set to continue. On Monday President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan with EU leaders intent on enlisting his help in controlling the refugee crisis. More talks are due on Thursday in Luxembourg at an EU meeting with representatives from eastern Mediterranean countries and the western Balkans. These are meetings with extremely wide implications.

Turkey’s centrality is hardly a surprise. It is, if nothing else, a key transit country for those fleeing war and persecution in Syria and Iraq. It is, equally, a Nato member on the frontline of key Middle Eastern conflicts. Moreover, a few days into Russia’s air campaign over Syria, Russian Sukhoi fighter planes . The daunting complexities of the Syrian crisis are now compounded by a fresh security conundrum – the sudden outbreak of Turkish-Russian tensions of the sort that Lord Palmerston would have recognised. Mr Erdoğan is a strong opponent of the Syrian regime, and he regards the Americans as having wavered dangerously – and thus, in the end, of having encouraged the Russian moves.

The EU has obvious reasons to turn to Mr Erdoğan for cooperation on the refugee issue, but it may find it has limited leverage. Consolidating the EU’s external borders is hardly possible without Turkish help, which is why joint Greek-Turkish patrols in the Mediterranean are under consideration. But, rightly or wrongly, the Turkish leader now feels he is negotiating , and has made this understood. But Mr Erdoğan is also on the campaign trail for the 1 November general election, in the hope that his AK party will achieve the majority it failed to secure earlier in the year.

Turkey can claim some moral authority on the refugee issue. It opened its borders after the Syrian civil war erupted in 2011. Mr Erdoğan can point out that (population: 75 million) has taken in 10 times more refugees than the EU (population: 510 million). He is not impressed with the way European and American leaders have avoided committing to the kind of “safe zones” that he has long called for – protected areas inside Syria, along the Turkish border.

Mr Erdoğan’s calculation is that EU beggars can’t be choosers. His cooperation will come at a price, and that price is a better deal for Turkey in relations with . Donald Tusk, president of the European council, has announced the creation of a joint EU-Turkish taskforce, but so far there is little to show. Last month the EU committed to more than €1bn in aid for Syria’s neighbours. The hope is now to get the Turks to accept EU “hotspots”, where asylum applications could be handled, but there are few signs that Turkey will oblige without some larger EU gestures, such as a commitment to take in half a million more refugees, or to lift visa requirements for Turkish citizens.

Resetting the EU’s relations with Turkey makes sense, but this kind of negotiation is full of risk. Mr Erdoğan is an increasingly confrontational potential partner. The Syrian crisis means that the Europeans and the Turks must work more together. But in the long term, diplomacy will only achieve results as part of a wider reassessment of Europe’s relations with all its neighbours based on clear and consistent principles.

  • This article was amended on 7 October 2015. It mistakenly described Mr Erdoğan as the prime minister of Turkey. He is the president. This has been corrected.