Global Independent Analytics
Danielle Ryan
Danielle Ryan

Location: Ireland

Specialization: US foreign policy, US-Russia relations and media bias

Erdogan playing Brussels like a fiddle, Hungary’s Orban the lone dissenter

Isn’t it funny that all the people we’ve found to demonize over the war in Syria and the resulting refugee crisis, are actually the people who did the least to cause it?

Eurocrats and their fans will no doubt be only too delighted to label Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban a ‘Nazi’ over his rejection of the latest hairbrained scheme they’ve come up with to help ‘solve’ the problem.

Orban vetoed the plan which would see all ‘irregular’ refugees (those without documentation and travelling outside normal transit routes) arriving from Turkey into Greece, returned to Turkey —  and for each Syrian returned, a Syrian in Turkey would be resettled in the EU. Any people apprehended while crossing the waters, would also be returned to Turkey.

For its trouble, Brussels also promised Turkey a speeding up of plans to ease access to the EU, with the goal of introducing visa-free travel for Turkish citizens by this summer, a doubling of cash (from an earlier promised €3.3 billion to €6.6 billion) and, best of all, a commitment to opening a new chapter of talks with Ankara on EU membership.

It’s not clear exactly what the EU got, unless you consider being seriously played, bribed and blackmailed an achievement. The upshot is that under this deal, people would get shuffled around some more and Turkey would get everything it wants.

Blackmail

If Brussels is intent on making deals with Turkey, a good place to start would be telling Ankara that there will be no speeding up of a visa-free regime arrangement and no further talks on EU membership until they cooperate with the ceasefire agreement in Syria, stop shelling Kurdish forces who are fighting ISIS and funnelling supplies to militant-controlled areas — and while they’re at it, straighten out a few of those ‘European values’ on which they seem to have missed the memo.

But instead of putting a halt to Erdogan’s gallop, Brussels and Washington continue to embolden him with hushed criticism and sweetened deals. He knows well how desperate they are for an emergency solution, so he sent his Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu to Brussels with a message: Do what we say, or there will be no end to your little problem.

Orban appears to be the only EU leader ready to be vocal about the whole mess. Most are too weak and cowed to say anything at all, while others are typically loud and delusional. President of the European Council and former Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk thinks the deal is a “breakthrough”. German Chancellor Angela Merkel was characteristically less generous with her wording, commenting that it would be a breakthrough only “if it becomes reality”.

The Hungarian-Turkish relationship has in recent years been a positive, reciprocal one. Turkey lifted visa restrictions for Hungarians in 2013 and in return, Budapest made it easier for Turkish businesspeople, sportspeople and actors to enter Hungary — within the limitations of Schengen. Hungary supports EU membership for Turkey. Bilateral trade between the countries stands at about $2.7 billion, with plans to increase it to €5 billion by 2020.

But some leaders don’t take as kindly to being manipulated and blackmailed as others. They are few and far between in Europe, but Orban is one of them. Earlier, he had expressed hope that a solution to the crisis would lay with Erdogan. He told the Wall Street Journal last October: “I think now the hope of the European leaders is in Erdogan. We have to pray every Sunday for the House of Erdogan”.

Clearly, he was hoping for a different outcome to those prayers, because he later changed his tune and called the latest scheme whereby Turkey would help ‘solve’ the crisis “in exchange for money and promises” an “illusion” before putting a spanner in the works and vetoing the arrangement.

Orban the outlier

Orban has always taken a hard line on refugees in Europe. In February he announced that he would put the question of forced refugee quotas to the Hungarian public in a referendum. That didn’t sit well with Brussels, where it is increasingly viewed that having your say democratically is only okay if it’s the ‘right’ say. Then, days ago, the Hungarian government announced plans to cut cash and other subsidies for asylum seekers and to reduce their space in detention centres to the size given to prison inmates, in an effort to dissuade more people from coming and to persuade others to leave.

Writing this from Budapest, where ‘Refugees NOT Welcome’ stickers are not an uncommon sight, these kinds of measures leave me with a bad feeling. It does not feel right — and yet, one can hardly look at the disaster Merkel’s Germany has made of its dangerous ‘open door’ policy and feel right either.

But despite the negative press Orban has received in the West over his stance on the crisis — and whatever one thinks of his harsh rhetoric — it can’t be denied that plenty of what he says still makes more sense than most of what comes out of Berlin and Brussels. It is simply a fact that Europe cannot sustainably take in huge masses of refugees, many of them without any proper documentation, in “an unlimited, uncontrolled manner” without running into serious problems.

When Hungary built a fence along its southern border, Orban argued that it was simply meeting the EU’s own regulations by protecting its border and respecting Schengen. When Brussels pushed back, he argued that when the EU “veered off the path of legality” things could “sink into anarchy” — and it is difficult to look at how Europe has dealt with this crisis and not see anarchy.

On paper, the latest attempt at a deal would halt the flow of refugees making the treacherous crossing from Turkey to Greece by sea — given that refugees may be less likely to try it if they know they will be returned. This is supposed to ease the uncontrolled flow into the European Union. It is also supposed to ensure that those who are brought from Turkey legally (at some future date) will be genuine refugees with proper documentation. That all sounds fine in theory, but in reality, the plan is wrought with problems.

No one’s happy

First, taking the humanitarian view, there is no guarantee that the risk of being returned will stop refugees from using the sea routes to Europe if they are determined to get here. The United Nations has already cautioned that a “blanket return” of foreigners to a third country is illegal (although Brussel says it is not). Amnesty International also weighed in, saying that the deal amounts to “horse-trading away the rights and dignity of some of the world's most vulnerable people”. Then there’s the question of where those already in Greece are supposed to go, with many EU countries either vocally or quietly opposed to quotas.

An alternative view would ask, why can’t Turkey keep the refugees it has? With Turkey having played a key role in prolonging the Syrian conflict, why are European countries like Hungary being chastised for their stance while Ankara engages in serious and sustained efforts to bring down the Syrian government and scuttle any real progress in the war-torn nation. Turkey has contributed to the almost incomprehensibly complicated situation in Syria whereby we see American-backed Kurds fighting American-backed jihadists, all the while being shelled by an American-backed NATO member.

So, whether you’re wearing a ‘refugees welcome’ or a ‘refugees NOT welcome’ sticker, the deal makes very little sense. Erdogan played Brussels like a fiddle, all the while decimating free speech and the free press in his country, knowing there would be no real backlash from Brussels — and he has been rewarded handsomely for the gamble.

And what say the Western press? Not much, frankly. They’ll stay mostly quiet, not wanting to rock the boat too much, temporarily suspending the importance of their so-called sacrosanct European values.

It’s all good, though. He’s their great NATO ally, you see.

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