Despite Turkey having a (in comparison) weak economy, the European Union seems incapable of putting them into their place.

As far as I can tell, there is no reason to fear a military conflict (NATO), nor any major losses for Europe's economy, if sanctions are set up. Turkey also doesn't seem to have any important allies, who would want to risk an economic conflict with the EU.

Given the recent events at the Greek border or the Syrian war, it's likely that the EU will offer Turkey further financial aid. Angela Merkel already said "further support for Turkey is an option" (Source; german: https://www.nzz.ch/international/merkel-haelt-am-fluechtlingsdeal-mit-der-tuerkei-fest-ld.1543995)

I don't see any reason why the EU would need to follow Turkish demands (from a strategical standpoint, but correct me if I am wrong).

Why doesn't the European Union act like the economic superpower they are and force Turkey to follow their demands?

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    Additionally the EU has a trade deficit with Turkey... so threatening them with tariffs would be economically plausible if not for the customs union. But I guess many in the EU don't want to take the Trump approach to this matter. More expensive fridges, tomatoes and the like for the European consumer could be the price... Commented Mar 3, 2020 at 22:08
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    Thing is, the EU is trying to take both a we-dont-any-more-refugees approach and pretend that they are going to fully respect due process when it comes to refugee claims. Turkey is a useful fiction. Oh, and btw, I am not saying the EU should accept literally millions more refugees. Just saying it's not Turkey's problem. Commented Mar 3, 2020 at 22:15
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    How is doing the EU's bidding “[Turkey's] place”? How's a modest financial aid to have Turkey takes care of what is really the EU's problem “surrendering”? You seem to assume Turkey just owes this to the EU but that's blatantly false, legally and politically and that's why Erdogan has leverage and knows it. Incidentally, Turkey is as large as any EU country, it's not small in comparison with them.
    – Relaxed
    Commented Mar 3, 2020 at 22:27
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    @Fizz That's debatable but that's not even the real question. The EU's problem is not having to take difficult decisions or be seen ignoring its own laws and the refugees' plight. Turkey has been taking care of that for them.
    – Relaxed
    Commented Mar 3, 2020 at 22:30
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    @Fizz no that's not what I said. I basically am doubtful that the, well-meaning, refugee rules can be applied, with all sorts of legal niceties and years of appeals, at the 1M+ refugee levels. not that the US should take 4M+ Venezuelans. or that Europe should take 3M+ Syrians. that's a fiction, and what we see is Turkey as a result. again, Canada could certainly take more Syrians than the 50K or so we've done. but I sure as heck wouldn't want to see 500K-1M in short order. Commented Mar 3, 2020 at 23:08

6 Answers 6


You seem to fundamentally misread the situation. Turkey does not owe it to the EU to help them save face and solve their problems for them. Erdogan has leverage and the EU is listening to him because they need him to solve their refugee problem for them.

If Turkey does nothing, people show up at the border. Turkey is under no obligation to protect EU borders for them or keep people on its territory. Internationally, Turkey hasn't recognized that the Geneva convention applies in this situation but it does in fact fulfill basic obligations towards Syrian refugees, hosts many on its territory and collaborates with the UNHCR. Many countries (include EU countries) do not fully respect this provision but under international law, refugees are supposed to be free to move in their country of refuge so why wouldn't some of them try to make it to the border?

Once you recognize that situation for what it is and give up the entitlement, you can begin to have a realist look at policy options. Would threats and sanctions be more effective or less costly than bribing Erdogan with financial help and a bit of indulgence? Is the EU prepared to face the consequences of demanding blatantly illegal actions on Turkey's part or of its threats being ignored? It's much easier to maintain the fiction that all this is just some well-meaning help to support refugees and avoid the tough decisions EU countries faced in 2015.

Importantly, the EU is not a country and is very legalistic. It does maintain some unity in matters of trade and there the size of its economy is relevant but that's it. Quite apart from the legitimacy or effectiveness of such a strategy, the EU has seldom been able to agree on strategic goals or wield raw power against international law so there is no reason to expect it would do it in this matter. Incidentally, several EU countries are neutral and not all are NATO members.

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    So, what happens if an, at-risk, Syrian refugee is let into Turkey - which is by doing so fulfilling its basic humanitarian obligations - and then moves to the Greek border? Greece (and the EU) can, by current international law, say "Geez, you're in no immediate danger, Turkey is a safe enough country". Am I correct in my understanding here? Legally speaking. Commented Mar 3, 2020 at 23:29
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    I don't understand your answer. Turkey is part of the conflict. They sheltered the militias that triggered the mayhem from the beginning. They supported the ethnic cleansing of some Kurdish areas and while some fake news claim that Turkish soldiers have been killed in skirmishes with the Syrian military they are actually fighting against the population. Now there are a lot of refugees in Turkey. But Turkey is partly responsible for their situation So why should those refugees be a European problem?
    – FluidCode
    Commented Mar 4, 2020 at 0:44
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    @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica Sounds about right AFAIK. If Greece doesn't want to let someone into Greece, they don't have to, but Turkey is under no obligation to help Greece not let people in. If conditions in Turkey change such that a million (made up number) people suddenly show up at the Greek border, well, sucks for Greece. Commented Mar 4, 2020 at 11:23
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    @FluidCode Because the refugees actually want to get to Europe. They don't want to stay in Turkey, because (as the OP already said) the European economy is better and will probably offer better social security. To avoid being once again "flooded" with refugees, the EU has to either ask Turkey to keep their borders closed, or they would have to close their own borders (which won't happen for political reasons).
    – Falc
    Commented Mar 4, 2020 at 14:08
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    @Falc: have been following the news? The EU (or rather Greece) is now doing exactly that with respect to migrants from Turkey. And the EU has been applauding Greece, calling it its "shield" bbc.com/news/world-europe-51721356 Commented Mar 4, 2020 at 21:03

As far as I can tell, there is no reason to fear a military conflict (NATO), nor any major losses for Europe's economy, if sanctions are set up. Turkey also doesn't seem to have any important allies, who would want to risk an economic conflict with the EU.

While Turkey is a NATO member, there's also tension. The migrants are one thing, buying military equipment from Russia is another. While the EU is clearly the bigger player, it doesn't have that much control over Turkey.

Turkey is in a position where it is friendly with many international players (the EU, the US, China, Russia, and some players in the Arab world) but it's not fully committed to any of them in the way, say, the Netherlands and Belgium are to each other. Each of these relationships also has sources of tension. For example, military conflict with Russia or the Uighur situation with China.

Having such delicate relationships with many superpowers means that one can break. While other nations may be pressured without a real way out, Turkey can simply shift its focus to align with the Sino-Russian world.

Now, the refugee crisis may be troublesome, but it's not that big of a deal, not worth losing a strategic ally over. Turkey is probably putting some pressure to get something. Turkey doesn't stand to gain much from simply stressing its relationship with the EU.

As such, I think the EU is looking to defuse the situation rather than putting extra oil on the proverbial fire.

  • Turkey is more like a "frenemy" of the EU, the US and Russia, I would say. Keep your friends close and your frenemies closer!
    – einpoklum
    Commented Mar 5, 2020 at 21:05
  • This doesn't even remotely answer the question. Commented Mar 6, 2020 at 21:10
  • @einpoklum The problem with Turkey though is that they're making enemies with everyone. The EU, the U.S, Russia, Syria, and Israel. Commented Mar 6, 2020 at 21:11
  • @dan-klasson: Don't forget the people of Turkey themselves - who live under intense oppression - ethnic and political, in addition to regular capitalist concentration-of-wealth. Academics and the media are either in prison or expecting the next purge (unless they're sucking up to the government).
    – einpoklum
    Commented Mar 6, 2020 at 21:21
  • @einpoklum I was gonna say the Kurds. But yeah that too. Commented Mar 6, 2020 at 21:22

Cultural and legal aspects aside, some interesting factoids can be gleaned by looking at the EU-Turkey trade, especially broken down by EU country. Turkey is a large-ish trading partner of the Eastern EU countries. Bulgaria tops the list percentage-wise with a quarter of its exports going to Turkey. Not surprisingly, they are also Turkey's best advocate in the EU. So a (Trump style) trade war with Turkey would probably significantly impact the poorest EU countries the most. They are already in conflict with the Western EU over climate policy etc. A trade war with Turkey would further aggravate the divisions in the EU. Yeah, the Western EU members could compensate (even more) the Eastern ones, but you can probably guess how smooth that's gonna go; see Poland. Basically, in this perspective the Western EU has the choice of paying Turkey directly, or starting a trade war with it and paying compensation the Eastern EU countries...

Besides, the EU's economy is not as booming as the US one. It still has major problems in its south and wants to avoid a recession. So the EU is probably looking for the least costly solution, rather than the "most muscular".

Also, even for Trump it was relatively hard for him to get the "small fish" Guatemala (one tenth of Turkey's economy) to agree to a Turkey-like deal (i.e. act as an off-shore asylum processing queue for the neighboring countries). Trump used mostly threats (of taxes on remittances and zero visas) and a few carrots (promises of more temp farmworkers visas). This level of bargaining won't really work with Turkey now, since they already accuse the EU of reneging their visa promises for Turkish citizens.

As a bit of an aside, the EU actually did impose some sanctions on Turkey fairly recently, in relation to the Cyprus gas fields dispute:

Today [27 February 2020] the Council has placed two persons under restrictive measures in relation to Turkey's unauthorised drilling activities in the Eastern Mediterranean. These persons are responsible for or involved in planning, directing and implementing offshore hydrocarbon exploration activities in the Eastern Mediterranean which have not been authorised by the Republic of Cyprus.

The restrictive measures consist of a travel ban to the EU and an asset freeze. Moreover, EU persons and entities are not allowed to make funds available to the two listed persons.

But as you can see these are more along the lines of the kinds that the EU has imposed against Russia (in relation to Crimea), i.e. they are not broad sanction. Their effect is probably going to be quite limited.

Also, as mentioned in the latter article, Council-imposed sanctions require unanimity...

Someone commenting below misread my answer as me saying that the EU must pay Turkey. I'm just saying that getting Turkey to comply via economic sanctions which is the topic of this question may not be as a easy as some would think. The EU presently seems to focus (instead) on a closed [Greek] border approach. The EU's response today is hardly similar to what it was in 2015:

Some humanitarian groups have expressed anger at how Greece and Turkey are dealing with the situation at the border, as Greek authorities said they had thwarted another 1,000 attempted border crossings overnight.

"We've seen quite a lot of unhappiness with some of the language that's being used," Euronews correspondent Jack Parrock reported from Brussels, citing von der Leyen's use of the term "shield". "They are concerned that this is language that is not appropriate from the European Union when a lot of the people coming are obviously fleeing wars in Syria and in other places as well".

"What we've seen today is a hard line and an inhumane response. EU leaders today have let Greece off the hook for closing its borders, and off the hook for shutting down the right to asylum for people in need," Eve Geddie, Amnesty International's Deputy Director of Advocacy told Euronews Now.

She said EU leaders had missed an opportunity to show solidarity with migrants. Disputing Turkey's classification as a "safe country", she said the EU should allow people to claim asylum.

Whether this border closure will prove tenable/sufficient in itself or not and then the EU might have to deal (again) with the problem further "upstream" in Turkey, either with carrots or (less likely) sticks... time will tell.

The EU has also been paying African countries to keep their migrants away... (sources on this vary between 1 and a 2bn euros) and more or less subtly conditioning aid on migration reduction.

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    You make it sound like Turkey has some sort of "economical hold" over the European Union. The EU is an economical world power whereas Turkey is not. Europe should enforce its borders rather then spending money on a rather unreliable "partner".
    – Rene
    Commented Mar 4, 2020 at 6:58
  • EU economic summary - yes, but should we count it such? EU do not have political will to do something - because it has too many inner contradictions about what to do and what not to do. Do you remember that old US poster "What phone should I use to call Europe?" - it is very accurately pointed. Commented Mar 4, 2020 at 7:55
  • @Rene: As I justified with data in my answer, yes, Turkey does have (economic derived) influence over some Eastern EU members. The Western EU cannot totally ignore this, unless they want to go back to EU-15 or something like that. There surely are way to deal with those Eastern EU members, but it ultimately involves money too (or EUexits). (Turkey even has a surprising amount of trade with Greece, so more like EU-14.) So the Western EU ultimately has a choice whom to give that money to. It may well be more economical to pay off Turkey directly. Commented Mar 4, 2020 at 16:19
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    @Rene: everything costs money: border infrastructure, aid to the Eastern EU countries, and/or bribes to Turkey. I'm not saying the EU made the most sensible or economical choice(s) how to spend that money, I'm just saying that your dichotomy between "border" and "economics" is a pretty false one. The EU is also bribing a lot of other countries, mainly in Africa to keep would be migrants away. You're saying that instead the EU should build big walls. That's indeed an option, but it wasn't the topic of the question or of my answer... Commented Mar 4, 2020 at 20:46
  • @Rene: reminder that the question was merely "Why doesn't the European Union [...] force Turkey to follow their demands?" not "What could the EU do about border security besides [or instead of] paying Turkey?" Also EU's Africa "anti-migration" fund is about $2bn theguardian.com/global-development/2017/oct/31/… Commented Mar 4, 2020 at 20:56

Countries can only do so much, short of war, before they run out of worthwhile means of applying pressure. That is one of the reasons not to jump to sanctions.

The EU commission, as has already been said, is rather legalistic and appears to have a genuine institutional commitment to liberalism and the principle of supranational institutions, and the ECJ tends to feel the same way. That means it is unlikely to help the member states violate the spirit of the refugee convention or other international laws even once they agree a policy position, unless they compel it to through treaty change. That's improbable, since the member states are too divided on what refugee policy their governments or voters want, what they'll say they want at home and abroad, or what their present policies are achieving.

Also, some of the hostility to Turkey looks rather like it is intended mainly for domestic audiences. Aside from Germany (which is restricted by its own constitution), most of the destination countries could be a lot harsher to refugees without penalty even before they can make a deal to block sanctions. Blaming a foreign country for something you've no intention of doing anything about is easy, and it is less likely to lead to the kind of unintended reactions blaming EU or Council of Europe institutions has caused.


Start with looking at Turkey. They have a land border to war-torn Syria where a lot of refugees originate. They could try to block of their border to Syria but this is very hard to do with millions trying to cross and would result in a humanitarian night mare. So Turkey doesn't do it and has several million Syrian refugees within its borders which causes major issues (financial, social etc). Now Turkey also has a border to some EU countries and if they do nothing some portion of the refugees will try to leave Turkey to go to the EU. This ameliorates the refuge situation in Turkey at costs nothing.

Now if Turkey does nothing millions of refugees come to the EU which the EU doesn't want. So now the EU could try to block their own borders but that is expensive and also requires force which the EU tends to be squeamish about. Or they could just pay Turkey to do it and get their hands dirty instead. If they want to play tough on Turkey, the EU would have to be willing to either properly close their own borders or accept the refugees. It is probably both easier and cheaper to just pay off Turkey.

  • You point out the border between Turkey and Syria, but you overlook the Turkish troops in Syria.
    – FluidCode
    Commented Mar 4, 2020 at 14:42
  • @FluidCode How are these relevant? My point was that Turkey does not prevent Syrian refugees to come to Turkey. Whether Turkey has some part of the responsibility for the existence of these refugees is irrelevant for that.
    – quarague
    Commented Mar 4, 2020 at 14:58
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    Another pretty misinformed answer. Turkey has been regularly blocking the border with Syria and pushing back refugees. Just like the EU, Turkey has developed an aversion for them. A major stated objective of Turkey's Northern Syria offensive was to create an area where they could move the refugees from Turkish soil. Commented Mar 4, 2020 at 16:03
  • @Fizz As per en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… there are currently 3.6 million Syrian refugees in Turkey. These all did cross the Syrian Turkish border at some point.
    – quarague
    Commented Mar 4, 2020 at 16:06
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    Yeah, at some point there were also hundreds of thousands travelling through Europe towards Germany. Things change. Especially after losing some local elections on the refugee issue, the AKP wants to be rid of them, one way or another. Commented Mar 4, 2020 at 16:08

A lot of answers talked about economic sanctions as it it was the only possible instrument and then talked about the difficulty of using such instrument. But in reality they are not the only instrument. Europe could just stop paying the billions of Euros it gives to Turkey every single year to allegedly support the refugees, but as a result to support the war. Beside those funds are there other means to put pressure on Turkey? Yes, for example there are millions of Turkish citizens working or studying in Europe, a freeze on new Visas will surely damage the government support, Even though Turkey in the last decade has been trying to shift their economic balance toward Russia I guess that those willing to work abroad would not be so happy to have Russia as the only option.

The real answer is different, why the governments don't take action? The situation is similar to Latin America countries where the US pays militias and criminal gangs to destabilize the country and force the population to migrate in order to get some slaves. The European leaders see the conflict in Syria in the same way. They have no interest in stopping Turkish meddling in the Syrian war or the way refugees are treated.

Edit: I restored the sentence mentioning slavery. A user deleted it on the ground that slavery is outlawed in the United States for over 150 years. That user pretends not to see the difference between legal appearance and the actual situation. He even forgot that after abolishing slavery the US adopted for a long time Jim Crow laws.

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    DV because the EU does not make regular payments to Turkey on this matter. The current situation is in part a result of the fact that the 2016 deal had a fixed total sum, after which nothing was to be provided (as part of the deal). Presumably (4 years ago) the hope was that Syria would be pacified in 4 years and refugees would be able to return (so aid money then might be sent to Syria instead), but that didn't happen. Commented Mar 4, 2020 at 15:54
  • Another reason to DV is that your claim that EU has been propping up Erdogan's offensive is at least partly misinformed, if not disingenuous. An additional reason why Erdogan is unhappy is that the EU stopped paying the Turkish government directly and instead paid NGOs to support the refugees. Obviously Erdogan didn't like this, and claims that half the agreed sum was not paid (well, to his government). The EU disagrees saying that they never agreed to actually pay the money specifically to Erdogan's government. Commented Mar 4, 2020 at 15:59
  • @Fizz first DV. It's you who are misrepresenting the situation. They are not officially regular payments because they need approval from the European parliament or the local parliaments depending on the source of the money. But in practice the have been regular payments for several years. Plus, the EU is still funding several project to the tune of billions to help their alignment to the EU standards (in the institutions and in the infrastructure) even though the talks for Turkish accession are stalled and even though they rolled back some institutional changes.
    – FluidCode
    Commented Mar 4, 2020 at 16:52
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    Disputes about the EU-related facts aside, your last para seems way over the top US bashing... conspiring to get themselves slaves... seesh. Commented Mar 4, 2020 at 16:57
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    The "short term" is six years and the pre-accession support for Turkey is not included in the proposed budget for the next six years. The EU doesn't have control over what aid its member states give, so it can't end any support that comes from the member states. Anyway, AFAIK no member state is giving its own aid to the Turkish state - Germany considered it momentarily and decided "no."
    – gormadoc
    Commented Mar 4, 2020 at 19:09

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