On July 15th the world stood still watching an armed forces faction attempt a coup in Turkey and the purge President Recep Tayyip Erdogan unleashed on the country the following days.
Across the narrow Aegean sea, those events were watched particularly closely. Despite their joined membership in the NATO, Greece and Turkey continue to have geopolitical disputes, oftentimes engaging in power displays and diplomatic stunts. Being a close neighbor and the European Union’s Southeast border, Greece has an undeniable interest in what goes on in Turkey.
Making things more contentious for the relationship of two countries, a helicopter with eight Turkish soldiers landed in Alexandroupolis on July 16th. The eight men have denied any involvement in the plot and have requested asylum in Greece, expressing fears for their lives if they were to be returned to Turkey. Turkey, of course, has demanded their extradition.
At this point, their fate is to be decided by the asylum committee, as they do not face criminal charges. As such, they are to be treated just like the tens of thousands of refugees that have landed on the Greek shores since last year.
If the eight soldiers can prove their case that they are in danger of brutal treatment or torture in their country, they will be, under the international law and the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), granted refugee status.
Their case is significantly enhanced by President Erdogan’s response to the coup attempt. His massive purge of supposed dissidents from the military, the academia and public services has created great discomfort in the West. The expressions of support for his democratically elected government on the day of the coup have turned into dire criticism and threats of expulsion from NATO since he declared the suspension of the ECHR and his intention to reinstate the death penalty for the coup plotters.
Greece will be, thus, obligated to grant the Turkish military men refugee status. But of course, the controversial President, dubbed sultan by his critics, will not see this move as a mere application of international and human rights duties. Turkey’s ambassador in Athens has already made clear that Greece’s refusal to extradite the eight “will not help” the bilateral relationship of the two countries.
Another ace up Erdogan’s sleeve is the refugee crisis. The EU in general, and Greece as the entry point, has relied heavily on a widely criticized deal with Turkey to stem the refugee flows from Syria and Iraq through the country and to Europe’s shores. Erdogan’s cooperation was conditional on financial aid, the reopening of the EU accession negotiations and the permission of visa-free travel for Turkish citizens within the EU’s Schengen Area. The deal had already floundered on the visa liberation – to get it, Turkey has to overhaul its anti-terror laws, which it is now, more than ever, unwilling to do. The extradition of the eight asylum seekers may yet be another sticking point.
As it is for NATO and the US, Turkey has been an important ally for the EU, acting as a gateway to the troublesome Middle East, a counterweight to Putin’s Russia and a major force against in the fight against IS. As for Turkey, the prospect of EU membership has put it on the path of reform, modernizing and liberalizing its state, strengthening its economy and mitigating its inequalities. Mr. Erdogan’s authoritarian tendencies, which have grown exponentially since the 7/16 attempt, have derailed it from this path, bringing the EU to a tough choice: to capitulate on its values and human rights standards, or to risk whatever retaliation Erdogan may have in mind.
At a time that it is ravaged by Islamic terror attacks, none of the above seems like a good choice for Europe. The terrorized European peoples will not be welcoming to the new refugee wave should Erdogan reopen the gates and loss of Turkey’s support will be crucial in the fight against IS. On the other hand, can Europe afford to be seen giving up its moral high ground to an authoritarian, backwater Islamist leader?
Featured image courtesy of The Guardian.