For years the Turkish coast guard and police had stopped most of the people-smuggling boats from crossing the narrow strip of the Aegean between Anatolia and the Greek Islands. As long as those boats were stopped, the flow of migrants into the EU from Turkey remained a trickle. Most Mediterranean trafficking used the more westerly route from Libya or Tunisia to Lampedusa, Pantelleria, Malta, Sicily, and the southern Italian mainland.
All that changed about five months ago, when Turkey abruptly stopped interdicting the people-smugglers, who were allowed to ply their trade without hindrance. The results are well-known: a million or so “refugees” have illegally entered the European Union by landing in Greece and then traveling overland to Austria and Germany.
In the past few months I’ve speculated about the reasons why Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan changed his policy, so I won’t go into those here.
I was startled a couple of days ago to learn that Turkey had changed its policy yet again, and started interdicting the boats once more. Here’s the report from Deutsche Welle:
European Refugee Arrivals Drop as Turkey Cracks Down on Smuggling Gangs
The number of refugees reaching Europe by sea dropped in November for the first time this year. The drop has been attributed to inclement weather and Turkish efforts to stem the flow of migrants.
Nearly 140,000 refugees and migrants crossed the sea to reach Europe in November, a nearly one-third drop from some 220,000 migrant arrivals in October, the UN refugee agency said on Tuesday.
“The monthly figure for November is the first one this year that actually shows a decrease compared to the previous one,” UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) spokesperson William Spindler said.
“The reasons for the slowdown in the number of arrivals have to do with fluctuating climate conditions in the Aegean but also a crackdown on smuggling by Turkish authorities,” Spindler said.
The number of refugees and migrants reaching Europe this year may top the symbolic one million number by the end of December, with 886,662 migrants and refugees reaching Europe so far this year.
A crackdown on smuggling by the Turkish authorities? By President Erdogan? Why did he change his mind?
Yesterday, when I read the following story from Fox News, the reason became abundantly clear:
EU to Set Aside More Than $3 Billion to Aid Syrian Refugees in Turkey
BRUSSELS — European Union leaders and the Turkish prime minister sealed a joint summit with a commitment to re-energize Turkey’s long-stalled membership talks and bolster their common resolve to deal with the Syrian refugee crisis.
The 28 EU leaders were leaning hard on Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu to stem the flow of migrants seeking a better future in Europe’s heartland and European Council President Donald Tusk said the latest estimate showed that “approximately 1.5 million people” had illegally entered the bloc this year, a lot coming through Turkey.
It left the EU in need of help from Ankara, even if their recent relations have been sown with discord. On Sunday, it was hugs all around as Tusk and Davutoglu completed what they called a breakthrough summit to put relations on an even keel again.
“Turkish membership will be an asset,” said Davutoglu after “no disagreements emerged” during the hastily-called emergency meeting.
Both sides got concessions: The EU desperately needs Turkish help to contain the flow of migrants into the bloc, and Turkey resuscitated long-mothballed hopes to join a bloc in which it would, by population, become one of the biggest member states.
The refugee crisis has reminded European leaders just how much Turkey — whether a bloc member or not — is a pivotal partner for the EU and a buffer state from the bedlam rocking much of the Middle East in recent years.
French President Francois Hollande said Sunday that the EU will need to monitor Turkey’s commitments “step-by-step,” deal with the migrant crisis, fight extremism and help end Syria’s political crisis. He said any funds for a 3 billion-euro ($3.2 billion) package to help Turkey deal with the migrants on its territory will be released progressively as the commitments are checked.
Davutoglu said that money wasn’t earmarked for Turkey per se but for the refugees on Turkish soil. Yet the hundreds of thousands of migrants coming into the EU this year have caused the worst refugee crisis in Europe since World War II, and EU nations have been at pains to draw Turkey in as part of the solution.
As part of the carrot approach, the EU promises to make haste with talks on easing visa restrictions and fast-tracking Turkey’s EU membership.
“I want there to be an agreement so that Turkey takes on commitments. Europe supports it, and the refugees can be welcomed,” Hollande said.
Davutoglu said he was “thankful to all European leaders for this new beginning, which is not just a beginning of a meeting but the beginning of a new process, which is very important for the future of our common bond in Europe.”
Even if support for closer relations with Turkey has often been lukewarm at best in many of the EU member states, the refugee crisis has forced a drastic revision of relations with Ankara.
“Turkey is right to expect that the EU provides relief,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said.
Others though pointed out that any aid had to be offset by Turkish commitments on reform and respect for human rights.
Tusk put it straight to Davutoglu during the opening session of the summit. In return for EU aid, he said, “we expect to see an immediate and substantial reduction of irregular migrants arriving to Europe.” Furthermore, he added, the EU nations want Turkey “to realize the common objective of coming closer together through reforms, the upholding of the highest standards of human rights and media freedom and the implementation of agreed roadmaps and benchmarks” that are part of the EU membership talks.
Now it all makes sense. Chancellor Angela Merkel paid her infamous visit to the Turkish President, pleading for his help in reducing the flow of “refugees”. I can picture Mr. Erdogan standing there like a Mafioso, rubbing his thumb against his fingers in the time-honored gesture and saying, “What’s in it for me?”
As it turns out, he got everything. In return for stopping some of the boats, he gets billions of euros — and presumably this initial payment is just the first tranche. The EU is also planning to allow Turks visa-free travel to the Schengen Area, and has promised (or at least the Germans promised) to fast-track Turkish membership in the EU.
All of which will make the problem of migrant-smuggling moot. With no need for visas and an open border to the EU, anyone who can get through Turkey’s extremely porous eastern and southern borders can continue on without impediment into the European heartland.
That’s a real tough deal you cut there, Mrs. Merkel. It reminds me of Barack Obama’s negotiating style.
Hat tip: Fjordman.