By Finian Cunningham*
It seems more than strange that, only three days before a high-profile summit was to take place between European Union leaders and Turkey on Europe’s refugee crisis, the Ankara authorities carried out an audacious assault on democratic rights.
The violent police seizure of Turkey’s biggest opposition newspaper, Zaman, and its immediate cowing into a tame pro-government publication represents the most brazen authoritarian move to date by the ruling AK party of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Turkish opposition politicians denounced the full-frontal assault on independent media as tantamount to a coup d’état by Erdogan.
But the Western response to the draconian display of state power was more muted than ever. There was hardly any Western media coverage of the Zaman seizure.
Both Washington and the EU merely issued perfunctory statements of “concern,” and breathlessly urged Ankara to respect “free speech” and “core European values.”
In recent months, Erdogan has been locking up journalists and closing critical media outlets. Under his increasingly autocratic rule, the Ankara authorities have prosecuted thousands of citizens who have “insulted” the president through social media.
More gravely, Erdogan has ordered a bloody wave of repression against ethnic Kurds in the country’s southeast, with disturbing reports of mass killings by Turkish troops. Turkish military have also been shelling across the border at Kurdish positions in Syria for several weeks now.
It is not as if EU leaders are oblivious to Erdogan’s rogue conduct. An EU report issued in November highlighted the growing repression of human rights. But still Erdogan continued his autocratic power-grab anyway. And the full-scale assault on an opposition news media outlet at the weekend is arguably his most flagrant move yet. The timing suggests it was a gambit to test EU resolve.
In other words, Erdogan knew from the Western silence and empty platitudes that there would be no repercussions for his repressive gambit. And why was that?
Because, as Erdogan is all too aware, the EU is on its knees to gain his cooperation on ending the refugee crisis assailing its very foundations. That, in turn, meant that he could send his prime minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, to Brussels to extract whopping concessions.
Significantly, at the last minute before the Brussels summit opened on Monday, Turkey’s premier Davutoglu pulled out “some new ideas.” One of those “new ideas” was that Ankara was no longer requesting $3.3 billion in EU aid, as it had done four months previously. Ankara was now demanding double the money.
Davutoglu hinted at the upper-hand when he arrived in Brussels, saying: “The whole future of Europe is on the table.” And he also let it be known that Turkey was talking more than just refugees, adding that Ankara expected “a new era in Turkey-EU relations.”
The upshot of negotiations in Brussels this week is that Turkey is to receive a 100 percent increase in promised financial aid from the European Union – to $6.6 billion – supposedly for accommodating Syrian refugees on its territory.
Ankara also wrung a promise from Euroland that its 75 million citizens could avail of visa-free travel by as early as June this year; and, perhaps the biggest prize of all, Turkey got a commitment from Brussels to speed up its long-delayed accession to the European Union.
A Financial Times report hinted at the delicate balancing act: “EU leaders tread carefully over Turkey’s media crackdown,” adding: “Leaders careful not to jeopardize deal with Ankara on migration.”
In theory, the EU has been spared the nightmare scenario of thousands of refugees crossing on a daily basis from Turkey into Greece and thence further north. The uncontrolled migration over the past year was threatening the very existence of the 28-nation EU, with member states publicly bickering over closed borders and perceived unfair burdens.
What Ankara appears to be giving in exchange is its cooperation in the systematic return of all refugees presently in Greece – some 30,000 – back to Turkey. At some unspecified future date, the EU is committed to take back Syrian refugees in equal numbers in a seemingly orderly process of asylum application.
However, it remains to be seen if such a complex arrangement of refugees being brought back to the EU can work in practice. For one thing, the EU will still have huge problems among its member states refusing to take up quotas of asylum seekers.
Nevertheless, what may be deemed certain is the forcible “shipping back” – as European Council President Donald Tusk put it – of refugees from Greece to Turkey. “The days of irregular migration to Europe are over,”said Tusk with a tone of relief following the Brussels summit.
In that grim task of hauling back beleaguered families, the NATO military alliance is to take the lead. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg confirmed that the alliance was increasing its naval presence in the Aegean Sea to intercept refugee boats.
The deal thus smacks of an emergency measure where supposed lofty EU principles are being thrown overboard.
EU leaders were increasingly desperate to halt the flow of migrants and this is the outcome. German Chancellor Angela Merkel was under particular pressure to stem the human tide following her erstwhile “open door” policy.
The refugee pathway into Europe has thus been blockaded with this latest EU-Turkish deal, even though there are serious ethical and legal implications over such a drastic measure.
Under EU law, all refugees have the right to seek asylum. That is no longer guaranteed, but what is guaranteed is that any refugee boat intercepted in the Aegean will be forced back to Turkey by NATO warships. That is a signal escalation of raw power over humanitarian rights.
The irony of all this is bitter. Only last week, NATO leaders were accusing Russia of “weaponizing Syrian refugees” for alleged political objectives to do with undermining the European Union. That preposterous contention is not worth dignifying with closer examination.
Much closer to reality though is that NATO member Turkey is the party that has weaponized refugees. Erdogan’s state has played a prominent role in inciting the five-year war in Syria for regime change in Damascus.
The war is in danger of dragging on even further given Turkey’s ongoing role in illegally supplying weapons and insurgents into Syria. That is the background to why nearly three million Syrian refugees have ended up in Turkey and for why Europe has incurred the destabilizing influx of migrants.
As Syrian President Bashar Assad said recently, Europe’s refugee crisis would be quickly solved if the covert war on his country was stopped. That is achievable if European powers clamped down on Turkey and Saudi Arabia sending weapons and mercenaries into Syria.
But instead, the EU overlords award the Erdogan regime with $6.6 billion while at the same time brutalizing human rights; and thereby ensuring that the whole problem is postponed for a much bigger eventuality.
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT, nor do they necessarily reflect those of Human Wrongs Watch.
**Photo: Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu | Author: U.S. Department of State | public domain | http://www.flickr.com/photos/statephotos/8747529185/sizes/o/in/photostream/ | Wikimedia Commons.