Despite Criticism over Hagia Sophia, Turkey Receives Additional EU Funding

Turkey has drawn significant international criticism over alleged tension with fellow NATO members and Turkish President Recep Erdogan’s recent controversial decision to turn Hagia Sophia into a mosque. Even though talks over economic sanctions on Turkey are supposedly taking place, Ankara has just secured additional funding from the EU in support of managing the long-lasting refugee crisis. The – surprising to some – decision, came at a moment when Turkey is perceived to be in disfavor, but in terms of real results it seems that Erdogan’s opportunistic policy is paying off.

The EU’s Substantial Support to Turkey So Far

Back in 2015, when the refugee crisis reached its peak, close negotiations between Turkey and the European Union started. We should highlight here that until the beginning of the negotiations, Ankara had been taking hardly any action to prevent the refugee and migrants flows towards Europe via Greece. By allowing the problem to build up within its territory, hosting millions of refugees in camps across Turkey, and suddenly letting it explode in the face of Europe, Ankara played a crucial bargaining chip; at that very moment, talks between Turkey and Europe started taking place regarding Turkish EU integration, with a particular focus on the potential visa-free travel of Turkish nationals across Europe. While the negotiations were reaching a dead-end, Erdogan started using the refugee crisis to gain political leverage at the expense of his EU counterparts.

While Ankara has not managed to push all the EU integration objectives of Erdogan’s agenda, a massive amount of EU funding has indeed been secured as a response to the ongoing crisis. As a first measure to tackle the problem the EU provided 3 billion euros back in 2016. In addition to the funding, the talks around the refugee crisis management concluded with a coordinated effort among Turkish and EU mechanisms and agencies that would eventually reduce the flows and assist the Turkey-based refuges.

The EU-Turkey Refugee Agreement

According to the agreement any individuals entering illegally the Greek islands from Turkey, would be immediately sent back. If any Syrian was sent back to Turkey then another Syrian from Turkey should be resettled to an EU country, according to specific criteria. It should be noted that the flows were barely at all after the agreement due to mismanagement on both sides of the Greek-Turkish border.

Two years after the initial deal, Turkey claimed to have supposedly used most of the resources provided to deal with the problem. In March 2018, Ankara obtained another impressive 3 billion euros as additional funding from the European Commission. The financial aid has reportedly been utilized to enhance Turkey’s infrastructure in support of the millions of in-country refugees and asylum seekers. Even though the internal conditions related to the presence of the refuges have improved to some extent, there has been little effort to reduce and control the illegal flows from 2015 to 2019. There is no evidence that any of this funding was applied to develop the appropriate mechanisms to mitigate the risk of illicit border crossings from Turkey to Greece.

Turkey’s Exploitation of the Events at Evros

As the European Union delivered its end of the agreement according to the 2016 deal, there seemed to be no room for additional financial aid to Ankara. Two of the decisive factors that triggered the huge migration waves since 2015, have been significantly limited. The Syrian conflict has been gradually coming to an end, while the presence of Daesh (aka the Islamic State) in the regional and international context has been almost eradicated.

Under these circumstances, Turkey instead prompted an artificial refugee crisis in early March 2020. This time Erdogan openly called on refugees based around Istanbul to enter Europe through Greece. In a matter of hours thousands of refugees made it to the Greek-Turkish land border, where the two countries are physically divided by the Evros river. As opposed to the Turkish tactics so far, this time the refugee populations mobilized were mostly comprised of young males trying to aggressively cross the borders and clashing with the Greek police. It was a very different image, indeed, when compared to the 2015-2017 crossings, where lone females and young children could be seen in every boat trying to reach the Aegean islands. The different approach back then caused international media attention, harsh criticism and a much more moderate response from the Greek side.

Greek Response

In the March, 2020 Evros incidents, Greece moved in a diametrically opposite way to its previous response to refugees, by building up the police and military presence, fortifying the land border and eventually blocking the illegal flows into the EU territory altogether. The way that this new crisis has been handled by the Greek government has given considerable political capital to the current administration, as the whole situation has been domestically received as a major Greek success against a Turkish provocation.

At the same time, Erdogan managed to use a short-term hybrid operation of limited scope to blackmail European leaders and secure additional EU funding that had not been on the negotiations table before; this funding has now been officially approved a few days ago by the European Union. As it turns out, the March 2020 incidents in Evros were a win-win situation for the opposing Greek and Turkish sides in different ways for each.

Additional Funding Guaranteed

On July 11, 2020, the EU approved an additional 485 million euros to Turkey to support the in-country refugee populations. The funding will be allegedly disbursed to the two main mechanisms supporting the refugees in country, the Conditional Cash Transfers, and the Emergency Social Safety Net. Those two programs assist almost two million Syrian refugees in Turkey and over half a million Syrian children of school age.

It is a fact that Turkey has received sizable resources in terms of financial aid from the EU to tackle the refugee crisis. The way that Ankara has been moving during the last five years, however, indicates that the refugee problem has been utilized to serve political and other internal purposes.

The EU funding, leaving the refugee crisis aside, is a relief for the struggling Turkish economy, especially in a period where the COVID-19 pandemic has created significant economic pressure worldwide.  At the same time, while Turkey is under harsh criticism over perceived provocative decisions such as the recent action on Hagia Sophia, Erdogan still consistently manages to maintain the country’s highly influential status in the international arena, and even receives funding by European Institutions that are presumably against various Turkish policies including on Hagia Sophia.