Greek barrier 'closes EU' to Turkey

Analysts say plans to fence the border between the two nations does not bode well for Ankara's EU membership ambitions.

Authorities arrest tens of thousands of migrants on their way to the West at the borderbetween Turkey and Greece every year. Here children are seen at a detention centre in the northwestern Greek village of Filako in November.
Nikolas Giakoumidis / AP
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ISTANBUL // Plans by Greece to erect a barrier along a section of its border with Turkey are sending a signal of rejection that goes far beyond the stated aim of preventing migrants from crossing on to European Union territory illegally, politicians and observers in Ankara say.

"It will be interpreted as the EU closing its doors to Turkey," Onur Oymen, a leading foreign-policy expert of the opposition Republican People's Party, or CHP, said yesterday. Plans for the fence mean that "Greece thinks Turkey may not join the EU in the foreseeable future", Mr Oymen, a former Turkish ambassador, added.

Christos Papoutsis, the Greek immigration minister, said the barrier on the Greek-Turkish border was necessary to stem the flow of migrants. "The Greek public has gone beyond its limits in terms of its capacity to welcome illegal migrants," the minister told the Greek news agency ANA.

"Greece cannot take it any more," he added in reference to the estimated 80,000 people that entered the country illegally last year. Mr Papoutsis provided no details about the plans for the fence.

According to news reports, a fence or some other kind of barrier is likely to be built along a 12.5km stretch near the River Evros, or Meric in Turkey, which marks the border between the two countries.

From January to the beginning of November last year, 32,500 migrants were intercepted in that area alone.

In the same period, close to 10,000 migrants on their way to Greece were arrested by Turkish police in the province of Edirne on the other side of the area where the fence may be built.

Every year, Turkish authorities arrest tens of thousands of migrants on their way to the West. Some hide in trucks; others try to reach Greek Aegean islands in rickety boats, a dangerous journey that has killed hundreds of people over the years. Turkey, a major transit country for migrants from Africa, the Middle East and Asia seeking a better life in prosperous EU countries, is under pressure from Europe to do more to stem the flow.

All in all, the land border between Turkey and Greece has a length of roughly 200kms. Last year, Greece called in Frontex, the EU border patrol agency, to help secure the land border. The two countries also share a long sea border in the Aegean.

There has been no official reaction from the Turkish government to Greece's plans for the fence. More information and facts were needed before a response would be possible, one Turkish diplomat said.

But the issue is likely to come up during a visit by Georgios Papandreou, the Greek prime minister, to Turkey this week.

Mr Papandreou is to address a yearly meeting of Turkish ambassadors in the eastern city of Erzurum. He is also scheduled to hold talks with Recep Tayyip Erdogan, his Turkish counterpart.

Ties between long-time rivals Turkey and Greece have improved markedly over recent years, and the two prime ministers signed more than 20 agreements designed to strengthen cooperation during a visit by Mr Erdogan to Greece last year.

Mr Oymen, the opposition politician, said talks between the two governments are needed urgently. "We need better cooperation between border authorities," he said. "This is how you solve those border questions, it is better than fences or mines."

The migrant issue aside, the planned fence is seen by Mr Oymen and others as a powerful symbol of the EU's unwillingness to accept Turkey as a member.

Accession negotiations between the EU and Turkey have dragged on without much progress since 2005, and France, a leading EU country, has said openly it is against admitting Turkey into the club. Mr Oymen also said the plans for the fence showed that Greece's stated support for Turkey's candidacy was pure "lip service".

Turkish media compared Greece's plans to border walls and fences between the US and Mexico and between Israel and the West Bank. "Greece to build a wall on the border with Turkey", ran the headline in one daily.

"The Meric is not only our border with Greece, but also with the EU," wrote Erdal Safak, a columnist for the Sabah newspaper. A wall or a fence there would be mean that there are "insurmountable barriers" between Turkey and European countries of the Schengen accord, which enables people to travel freely between member states.

The refugee question is also a sensitive issue in Turkey's efforts to persuade the EU to lift visa restrictions for Turkish citizens. The EU says Turkey will have to sign a so-called readmission agreement before visa requirements can be dropped.

With the agreement, Ankara would commit itself to take back the tens of thousands of migrants who use Turkey to enter EU territory illegally every year.

Turkish diplomats have said their side is ready to sign the agreement, but that problems within the EU have led to delays.