Countries are using the EU’s greatest fear as their ultimate bargaining chip

Migrants sit on top of a border fence in Melilla.
Migrants sit on top of a border fence in Melilla.
Image: Reuters/Jesus Blasco De Avellaneda
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Sharing a land border with the European Union comes with both perks and drawbacks. In a bid to boost trade with the EU and promote other aspects of integration, Turkey and Morocco have found that controlling the flow of migrants across their borders with the EU is a powerful bargaining chip.

Angst in Ankara

Last year, the EU made a controversial deal with Turkey, in which the bloc agreed to give the country €6 billion ($6.8 billion) in aid, consider visa-free travel to Europe for Turkish citizens, and renew stalled EU membership talks. In return, Turkey agreed to take back migrants who crossed over to Greece if they never applied for asylum or had their claim rejected. The deal—heavily criticized by human rights groups—reduced the number of migrants arriving in Greece by a staggering 90% within a few months of it coming into force.

Since the deal, Turkey has reminded the EU on numerous occasions about its end of the bargain. Last August, Turkey threatened to tear up the deal if its citizens were not granted visa-free travel within months. Turkey threatened this again in November, after the European parliament took a largely symbolic vote to freeze talks on EU membership.

“You clamored when 50,000 refugees came to Kapikule, and started wondering what would happen if the border gates were opened,” Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said at speech in response to the vote. “If you go any further, these border gates will be opened,” he added.

Turkey has used migrants as political currency for other matters, too; last month, Turkey warned it could cancel the EU deal after Greece refused to extradite eight Turkish soldiers who fled after a failed coup in July. “We are evaluating what we can do, including the cancellation of the readmission deal with Greece, ” foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said in response to the ruling. This week, Turkey once again urged the EU to hurry up and grant its citizens the right to travel to the bloc without visas.

Riled in Rabat

A similar dynamic is playing out on the other side of the Mediterranean, at the only land border between Europe and Africa. Morocco recently hit back at the European Court of Justice, which challenged Morocco’s claim to Western Sahara last year. Up until the ruling, Western Sahara—a former Spanish colony annexed by Morocco in 1975— was subject to a bilateral free-trade agreement between Morocco and the EU. But since the ruling dismissed Morocco’s claim to the territory, the two EU deals with Morocco—a 2000 co-operation agreement and a 2012 trade pact—no longer applied.

“Any obstacle in the application of this agreement is a direct attack on thousands of jobs… on both sides, and risks the resumption of migratory flows, which Morocco has succeeded in containing through a deliberate, sustained effort,” the agricultural ministry said in a statement.

To stem migrant flows, the EU pays Morocco tens of millions of euros a year. The agreement has largely quelled the irregular incursions at the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla. But tensions at the border have flared once again, with hundreds of migrants storming the fence (paywall) at Ceuta last month.