Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened Europe with a flood of refugees on Thursday if the continent’s leaders call the Turkish invasion of Syria an “occupation.”

“We will open the gates and send 3.6 million refugees your way,” Erdogan said while speaking to officials from his ruling AK Party, according to Reuters.


While this threat looks quite serious on face value, I started to think about medium term consequences of such move. I don't even mean usual tit for tat, with the EU slashing economic aid, withdrawing from custom union with Turkey or putting some trade sanctions. I mean direct political result of such move, even before including any potential retaliation are included.

At least in theory, the hypothetical answer of the EU could be following: "Yes, indeed it would cause some turmoil and serious political changes among nervous voters. However, are you sure that Turkish interests would be better served when Viktor Orban become the President of European Council?"

I'm not saying that literally this Hungarian politician would be elected, however judging from voters behaviour during migrant crisis of 2015, a one third of this number in a year is enough to dramatically boost support for nationalist parties. So such threat, if implemented, would remodel political scene in the EU, with either voting new people to power or mainstream politicians changing their position towards views that they are right now denouncing.

So could EU call bluff, or is there some key factor that I miss? (like that number would be highly problematic, but not be enough to cause ideological shift in majority of EU countries, detrimental for Turkish interests? Or that in this situation Erdogan is desperate enough to go this way anyway?)

  • Thanks to Trump's latest decisions the war in Syria is now very close to being over, so those 3.6 million might finally go home after all. Commented Oct 19, 2019 at 18:01

1 Answer 1


It seem unlikely Erdogan will change his stance toward the EU over simple declarations. The EU has become somewhat accustomed to calling his bluff in such contexts. E.g. in 2016

Angela Merkel’s top adviser on Europe dismissed threats by Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to pull out of the EU’s refugee deal with Ankara as "bluster," according to leaked British diplomatic cables. [...]

“Uwe Corsepius told me today that the EU should remain calm,” the British diplomat reported back to London on May 13. “While Erdoğan still had the ability, in theory, to generate a surge in the refugee flow, his threats were just bluster. It was in Erdoğan’s strategic interest to keep the relationship with the EU working.”


The Corsepius cable was written before recent tensions emerged this month between Berlin and Ankara over the German parliament’s decision to declare the Ottoman Empire’s 1915 massacre of Armenians a genocide.

Nonetheless, the communication helps explain Merkel’s tempered response to Ankara’s persistent taunts. The cable suggests Berlin has concluded that Erdoğan needs Europe just as much as Europe needs Turkey.

“EU accession and visa liberalization remained strategic goals for Turkey,” the diplomat paraphrases Corsepius as saying.

[...] “We can keep this under control,” Corsepius adds, according to the cable. [...]

Indeed, despite the heated rhetoric, Turkey has continued to honor its end of the bargain. The number of refugees crossing the Aegean to Greece has declined sharply in recent months.

On the other hand, should the EU do something more dramatic in terms of sanctions things could change. The recent limited sanctions that various EU countries have imposed only on military equipment that could be used in Syria (e.g. by UK or Germany) were themselves dismissed as funny and inconsequential by Turkey. Germany's top arms export market is Turkey.


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