Turkey: the giant holding the EU to ransom

At the crossroads between Europe, the Middle East, and Central Asia, its army and economy are both huge. It could open the migrant floodgates and drown the EU. But is Turkey trustworthy?

On Friday last week, police arrived at the offices of Turkey’s largest opposition newspaper, Zaman. Journalists locked the doors. Protesters gathered. But it was no use — the authorities had soon seized the paper and fired its editor-in-chief.

By Sunday, Zaman was printing glowing praise for the country’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. On Monday morning, Turkish politicians were arriving for a summit in Brussels. ‘It is as if Erdogan wanted to teach a lesson to European leaders,’ wrote a former Zaman columnist.

The incident was the latest in a long line of attacks on press freedoms — and it goes against everything the democratic EU stands for. In ordinary times, it would quickly be condemned. But the EU faces an impossible dilemma: it desperately needs Turkey’s help.

Europe’s biggest migration crisis since World War Two has plunged the union into chaos. Across Europe, countries are closing their borders while far-right parties stoke public fears of immigration. The EU’s leaders are frantically searching for a solution that will help those most in need without causing more unrest among their own people.

Many hope that Turkey will provide a temporary solution. The vast country acts as a buffer between the Middle East and the EU. It boasts the second largest military in Nato and it is already hosting 2.7 million Syrian refugees.

Yesterday the EU agreed a deal with Turkey to take back migrants in exchange for €3 billion in aid and an accelerated application to the EU. But critics fear that the deal will only make things worse.

President Erdogan is becoming increasingly authoritarian, they say, and the EU should not give him any more power over its future. After all, he is not above threats: at a summit last November, he compared Luxembourg to a ‘village’ and warned that ‘we can open the doors’ any time and ‘put the refugees on buses’. Would he really hold the EU to ransom?

Erratic behaviour

Do not underestimate how unpredictable he can be, warn some. This is a man who is openly scornful of his country’s democracy, and who built himself a lavish palace four times the size of Versailles. It is a crime to even insult him — there have been 2,000 charges made against Turks who have badmouthed him in the last 18 months. There is no way of knowing what he will do next.

Calm down, say others. Turkey needs the EU as much as the EU needs Turkey. The country still hopes to become a member of the union one day, with all the political and economic benefits that come with it. Erdogan may have the upper hand now, but he will not push the EU too far. As Ahmet Davutoglu, the Turkish prime minister, put it, ‘the whole future of Europe is on the table’. And that includes Turkey.

You Decide

  1. Should the EU continue to work with President Erdogan?
  2. Is Europe doing enough to help refugees?


  1. Write a letter to a Syrian refugee currently living in Turkey, asking three questions about their life.
  2. Research the history of one of Turkey’s other charismatic leaders. Produce a fact file which explains their impact on the country.

Some People Say...

“It is hypocritical for Europe to ask Turkey to take more refugees.”

What do you think?

Q & A

How worried should Europe be about Turkey?
It’s complicated. Turkey has strong allies in the the Middle East and the West, which actually makes it a very useful partner when it comes to negotiating peace deals. But its position gives it much power that in the wrong hands could fuel several existing tensions. For example, last year it was criticised for shooting down a Russian plane that had entered its airspace — a move which could have had disastrous consequences.
Will the EU’s deal with Turkey work?
Sending back some migrants won’t solve the problem for good. As long as Syria’s civil war continues, there will be refugees who are forced to flee the country, and there is a thriving people smuggling trade which promises to get them to Europe — often at great risk to their lives.

Word Watch

Recep Tayyip Erdogan
Prime minister of Turkey for 11 years before he was elected its president. The party he founded, the AKP, is still in power.
Press freedoms
Last year police also raided the offices of a media group which owned two newspapers and two TV stations, while several journalists have been arrested for defamation and espionage. The World Press Freedom Index ranks Turkey 149 out of 180 countries.
Migration crisis
In 2015, more than one million migrants entered the EU by boat. The union has struggled to find a solution that all 28 members will agree to.
Far-right parties
Anti-immigration parties have been picking up votes across Europe — most recently in Slovakia, where an extreme right party helped overturn the prime minister’s majority at the weekend.
A military alliance of North American and European countries.
The small country is the home of the president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker.
The French palace housed the royal family from 1682 until the French Revolution. It is a symbol of absolute monarchy in France.

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