EU Courts Turkey to Stem Refugee Tide Amid Internal Border Clash

  • Turkey to get 3 billion euros in aid, faster visa-free talks
  • Tusk sees no-passport system at risk after Swedish curbs

European Union leaders wooed Turkey with 3 billion euros ($3.2 billion) in aid, visa waivers and stepped-up membership talks to persuade it to halt the flow of Middle Eastern refugees toward western Europe.

QuickTake Europe’s Refugee Crisis

EU governments played up Turkey as an ally in stemming migration and played down years of criticism of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian ruling style. EU leaders will meet Erdogan to firm up the incentives package by early December.

“We need to work with Turkey because it houses many refugees and also struggles to control its borders, so it’s legitimate that it be helped,” French President Francois Hollande told reporters on Thursday after an EU summit in Valletta, Malta. “We need to provide resources so that people who have made it to Turkey can live decently.”

Turkey’s influential role was on display earlier Thursday when Sweden became the fifth country within Europe’s passport-free travel zone to impose temporary border checks to keep out the rising tide of migrants and asylum seekers. The disarray suffered at the EU’s internal boundaries is forcing member state leaders to buttress its external frontier.

Civil Liberties

Turkey has sheltered 2.5 million refugees from Syria and Iraq and let thousands more travel onward to Europe, often by risking the passage across the Aegean Sea to Greece in dinghies and lifeboats.

EU-Turkey ties have frayed since Turkey started entry talks in 2005, as Erdogan’s governments drifted from EU civil rights standards and the bloc’s economic woes soured its appetite for further expansion. EU rebukes have mounted with each annual progress report on Turkey.

This year’s European Commission report was true to form, criticizing the Turkish government on Tuesday for “major shortcomings” in civil and media liberties and a politicized justice system. But in a sign of Europe’s eagerness to solicit Turkey, it was delayed until after Erdogan’s party regained its parliamentary majority in elections on Nov. 1.

Turkey escalated the media crackdown after the election, seizing two opposition newspapers and firing dozens of journalists there. Turkey now ranks 149th of 180 countries in the Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index, compared with 99th of 139 countries in 2002 before Erdogan became prime minister.

Open-Door Policy

Despite the critical tones, the bloc will also pledge to relaunch the enlargement talks, even though membership is years or decades away. In a more immediate concession, the EU will also speed up its bureaucratic process to waive visa requirements on Turks visiting Europe, though with no deadline.

The biggest inducement was the financial aid to help Turkey lodge Syrian war refugees and keep them there. The EU at first weighed 1 billion euros, but Turkey drove up the price.

European governments hope that as the flow of refugees from Turkey dries up, the chaotic scenes at borders within Europe will cease. Sweden called for an overhaul of the passport-free system, which makes inner-European travel like trips between U.S. states and is routinely hailed by EU leaders as one of the greatest achievements of a continent without walls.

Sweden’s open-door policy has made it a magnet for asylum seekers, with more than 120,000 arriving this year. Sweden forecasts as many as 350,000 by the end of 2016. Sweden’s migration agency expects the costs to reach 60 billion kronor ($7 billion) in 2016, twice an earlier prediction, and the government proposed an additional 11 billion kronor in spending on Thursday.

Preserving Schengen

Twenty-two EU countries and four others are part of the Schengen system, named after the Luxembourg town where the free-travel treaty was signed in 1985. Britain and Ireland are among the six EU countries that still check passports at airports, docks and train stations.

“If we want to preserve Schengen unconditionally, then we need better protection of our outer borders,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said. EU President Donald Tusk said “the future of Schengen is at stake and time is running out.”

Widespread unease about migration is most pronounced in eastern European countries which rebuilt their ethnic identities after escaping communism, but the political backlash against mostly Muslim newcomers has infected western European politics as well.

“Many people think here that migration is a positive thing: the European experience just provides evidence of the opposite,” Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban said.

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