In the panic to prevent irregular migration and save Schengen, the EU is losing sight of the bigger picture in its relations with Turkey.
Cyprus, a non-Schengen member, has vowed to block efforts to speed up Ankara's EU accession talks, a Turkish demand for cooperation on migration. However, the Republic of Cyprus has understandable form with its Turkish relationship. The UK by contrast has long been a strategic supporter of enlargement of the EU to Turkey and a strategic friend of Turkey. That we should now join Cyprus in our attitude to Turkey reflects dreadful developments in Turkey. We must ensure that the EU does not engage in a purely transactional arrangement, ignoring the causes of the current refugee crisis, and endorsing the Erdogan regime's outrageous recent domestic and foreign policies.
Turkey has been propelled into a tailspin and it is increasingly difficult to see how it can recover. Ordinary Turkish citizens face economic, security, and political challenges akin to those faced by some of their Arab neighbours. This stems from their own Government's failed and failing authoritarian policies. Furthermore, Erdogan hangs over Turkey the prospect of a constitutional referendum to move towards a more presidential system. Given the management of the last election, full dictatorship is now alarmingly close.
In Syria, Erdogan has been obsessed with toppling Assad and preventing Syrian Kurds from taking and administering any territory along their common border. This has translated into delayed efforts to close the porous border, which ISIL aligned extremists have been able to exploit, attacks on Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) positions, and regrettably successful lobbying to exclude them from the Syrian peace talks. This runs directly counter to the shared international interest in ending the Syrian civil war with an inclusive settlement and prioritising the fight against ISIL and Jabhat al-Nusra.
Domestically, the Government chose not to treat the killing of two police officers by Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) sympathisers in July 2015 as a criminal case. Instead, it tore up the hard-won ceasefire from 2013 and resumed wide-scale military repression, restarting a depressingly familiar cycle of violence. Analysis of the military escalation with the Kurds points to disgraceful motives by the Erodgan regime, namely to shore up their nationalist credentials after the loss of the ruling AKP's parliamentary majority in June. Horrendously it has worked and they recovered that majority in November.
With every bomb that goes off, not only are more innocent individuals slaughtered, but more tourists stay away, damaging the entire economy. Furthermore, civilian casualties serve to reinforce the Government's hand in its continuing crack down on press freedoms. The recent takeover of opposition newspaper Zaman newspaper was only a single step in a long running saga. Erdogan has also announced he is seeking to widen the definition of terrorism to include their "supporters", possibly including "academics, lawmakers, authors, journalists, or NGO executives".
Ahead of the EU-Turkey summit last week Reporters Without Borders strongly stated that "The European Union must not settle for just reminding the Turkish authorities of the principles of media freedom... There can be no question of resuming EU accession talks while Ankara visibly tramples on basic European values. If the EU continues to yield to blackmail regarding migrants, it will give the impression of abandoning the principles on which it was founded... Is the EU determined to let itself be humiliated?" Sadly, it turns out the answer was yes.
The final statement by European leaders only contained the single paltry line that they "also discussed with the Turkish Prime Minister the situation of the media in Turkey." Really? That's it? The EU's High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Federica Mogherini had arrived at the summit calling for cooperation on ending the Syrian civil war, the need to re-engage with Kurdish political representatives, and to "respect the highest standards when it comes to democracy, rule of law, fundamental freedoms." It is inexcusable that by the end of the summit such sentiments were left behind on the cutting room floor.
We should expect more from Turkey as not only are they a NATO ally, thus committing us to their defence, but supposedly a democracy. EU Heads of Government are now talking about opening further chapters to speed up the accession process. Whilst EU membership is still far away, it is quite wrong to give positive signals to such a regime as its commitment to democracy, media freedom and human rights is evaporating. Such a move undermines the entire purpose of the EU accession process, namely to encourage positive developments, not to be used as bargaining chips when dealing with blackmail. Accession negotiations should only be deepened and progressed when the Turkish Government has demonstrated that it is serious about both reforms and its existing commitments to the EU, including those on Cyprus.
The EU is right to intensify cooperation with Turkey on irregular migration which has led to countless deaths in the Aegean and is threatening the political stability of Europe. However, it appears we are reducing what should be a comprehensive dialogue to a frenzied scramble to meet Turkish demands. Not only will we miss the opportunities to address some of the real causes of the crisis, but we will reward terrible behaviour, legitimise brutal policies, and undermine the EU's moral authority.
Crispin Blunt is the Conservative MP for Reigate, and the chair of the foreign affairs select committee