Refugees Give Turkey Leverage With EU

President Erdogan reaps financial and policy benefits from deal with Europe.

Migrants want in to the EU. So does Turkey.

Photographer: Ozan Kose/AFP/Getty Images

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has a new enemy in Russian President Vladimir Putin after Turkey shot down a Russian jet. But his new friends in the European Union more than make up for the loss. Desperate to stanch the flow of immigration, the EU has promised Turkey 3 billion euros ($3.2 billion) to keep Syrian refugees there so they won’t go to Europe.

Included in the bargain is the restarting of Turkey’s accession to the EU, stalled until now because of traditional European fears of Turkish economic migrants and worries about the country’s slow slide away from liberal democracy.

QuickTake Turkey's Continental Divide

The ironies are palpable and rich. One is that a major reason for blocking Turkey from full EU membership was that European countries feared being swamped by Muslim Turks. Now, it seems, those Turks are preferable to Syrians, at least from a European perspective.

Another irony is that if it weren’t for the Syrian refugee crisis forcing European countries to give up on the Schengen model of open borders, those same countries wouldn’t be prepared to let Turkey into the union. Blocking the Turkish border is, after all, the main point of the exercise.

Under the old regime, it would’ve been difficult to tell Turkey it could join the EU but not the Schengen zone. You could say the impending death of Schengen opens the door to Turkish accession by closing the door to Turkey’s border.

The European initiative is a godsend for Erdogan in terms of both his domestic troubles and his foreign policy woes. At home, Erdogan has become increasingly authoritarian, weakening press protection, prosecuting vast (and doubtful) conspiracies against his government, and suppressing Kurdish nationalist groups he previously courted. At the same time, his popularity has waned. His party won the last elections, but only just -- and after a stalemate in the elections before.

European criticism of Erdogan’s lousy human-rights record will now be tempered or even suppressed, because the EU needs him. Meanwhile, domestic opponents will be deprived of the argument that Erdogan’s authoritarianism has soured Turkey’s position with the West. Both are big wins for Erdogan, albeit unearned except by luck.

What’s more, the first tranche of funding can be expected to continue and grow. Erdogan wanted a guaranteed 3 billion euros a year, which made German Chancellor Angela Merkel balk. But the agreed-upon amount was described as a first installment, to be augmented based on performance.

That gives Erdogan huge leverage going forward: If the money doesn’t flow from Europe to Turkey, he can open the borders and let refugees flow the other way.

Then there’s Erdogan’s foreign policy boost. Under Ahmet Davutoglu -- first as foreign minister, and now prime minister -- Turkey has lurched from one failed foreign policy approach to the next over the last five years. First, Erdogan announced close relations with neighbors, but managed to alienate Israel. Then, his government embraced the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt, only to see it fall to a coup. An attempt to cozy up to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and open the Turkish-Syrian border became an embarrassment after Assad’s brutal tactics against protesters.

Along the way, Erdogan squandered a historically strong relationship with Israel, and incurred blame for supporting extremist Syrian rebels. The Kurds, whom Turkey views as a long-term structural threat, have achieved greater sovereignty in Iraq than at any time in their history.

This litany of failure would ordinarily do much to sink a government. But by restarting the EU accession process, Erdogan has a chance to make all these errors disappear into comparative irrelevance.

To be fair, most of Davutoglu’s terrible ideas and initiatives arose because the EU had blocked Turkey’s path to accession, leaving the country scrambling to find a foreign policy identity and mission. Erdogan’s AK Party first came to power promising closer ties with Europe, a widely popular (and rational) foreign policy strategy. Now it can go back to its roots.

One thing, however, will have changed -- and it’s significant. When Turkey was focused on pleasing the EU, human-rights and democracy measures improved. When the EU option faded, those measures got worse. The linkage couldn’t have been clearer or more direct.

This time, in contrast, Erdogan has leverage in the form of the Syrian refugees. The EU won’t be able to pressure him to improve governance and freedom as a quid pro quo for greater integration. The only quid he needs to give is to keep the border shut.

Within a day of the deal, Turkey announced the detention of 1,300 asylum seekers. This is the tip of the iceberg. In its understandable desperation to make someone else take the Syrian refugees, the EU has created incentives for Erdogan to crack down in new ways. Instead of complaining, expect the EU to say thank you.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.