EU leaders should not fear a 'Turkish invasion of Europe'

Just 13 per cent of Turkey’s adult population expressed a desire to migrate, lower than many other countries.

With a year to go until the people of Romania and Bulgaria gain free movement across the EU, familiar concerns have already been raised about the possibility of uncontrolled immigration into the UK and the consequences this could have on the housing and labour markets.

Stoking up such fears has long accompanied talks of EU expansion to Eastern and Southern Europe nations. But the economic balance of power in Europe has shifted, and European leaders need to take a more sensible view of migration. Nowhere is this more the case than with Turkey, which would become the EU’s most easterly and second most populous nation. Accession talks with Turkey began in October 2005 but have stalled, primarily due to opposition in Germany and France.

While there are concerns over the Cyprus issue and the Turkish justice system, ‘freedom of movement for workers’ remains one of the most intractable barriers to Turkish accession, particularly for Germany and France. Turkey’s history as a major source of immigration into Europe since the 1960s, creating visible and sizeable Turkish minorities, has long held back its ambitions to join the EU. If Turkey joins, the fear is that millions of Turks will migrate to Europe, overwhelming local labour markets and exacerbating cultural tensions.

Yet analysis of Gallup World Poll data on migration prospects show there is little basis for this fear. While the desire to migrate is always higher than actual migration rates, comparing data across different countries helps us understand patterns in mobility routes and intensity today and in the future. The findings, which I presented last month as chair of the Turkish Migration in Europe Conference at Regent’s College London, allow us to evaluate the notion of a ‘Turkish invasion of Europe’ following its accession to the EU.

The data showed that around 630 million individuals reported a desire to move to another country, with about 7.6 per cent of the world’s adult population saying they would like to migrate within a year, and about 3 per cent already preparing – so, applying for visas and booking travel.

Comparing Turkish migration attitudes in relation to other nations, we see that 13 per cent of Turkey’s adult population expressed a desire to migrate, lower than popular immigration destinations like Germany (18 per cent), France (19 per cent) and the UK (30 per cent). Turkey’s figure is also lower than the 16 per cent among Southern and Eastern European neighbours. Desire to migrate is relatively high in the troubled countries in Turkey’s neighbourhood: Iraq (16 per cent), Syria (27 per cent) and Iran (15 per cent). Meanwhile, other emerging market economies like Brazil and Russia have reported similar rates to Turkey: both 13 per cent.

Turkey’s record of economic progress and relative political stability in the last decade are key reasons for this shift. Turkey is rapidly becoming a destination country for thousands coming from Africa, Asia and Middle East, as a beacon of stability for the region. Continuing economic crisis in Europe and Turkey’s steady growth, as well as discrimination in some cases, has paved the way for further migration from Europe to Turkey, including many second and third generation Turkish minority members arriving from Germany. Indeed, in the last decade the net Turkish migration to Germany has been negative.

Although it is clear that Turkey is likely to produce some more outward migration, all of her European neighbours are more likely to generate more migrants in the near future. Turkey can already be considered as an immigration destination, and this trend is likely to continue.

With the launch of the "positive agenda" between Turkey and the EU in May last year, and the EU Commission's report in October which called on Turkey to do more to progress its membership bid, 2013 promises to be an important year for Turkey’s European ambitions. Its path to the EU is unlikely to be straightforward, with many barriers still to be crossed, and many politicians in influential nations opposed to its membership. Yet the shift in migration trends is great reason for optimism – showing how the nation’s rapid economic growth is making it increasingly plausible for these barriers to be overcome.

Ibrahim Sirkeci is director of Regent's Centre for Transnational Studies, Regent’s College

EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fule (R) and Turkey's EU Affairs Minister Egemen Bagis give a joint press conference in Ankara on May 17, 2012. Photograph: Getty Images.

Ibrahim Sirkeci is director of Regent's Centre for Transnational Studies, Regent’s College

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The lute master and the siege of Aleppo

Luthier Ibrahim al-Sukkar's shop was bombed; when he moved, militants came for him. Over WhatsApp, he told me what's next.

Aleppo was once a city of music, but this year the 400,000 residents who inhabit its eastern suburbs can hear nothing but the roar of Russian warplanes, and ear-shattering blasts from the bombs they drop. To the north, west and south, the city is encircled by ground troops from the Syrian armed forces, Hezbollah and Iran. Most residents are afraid to flee, but soon, now that supply lines to the city have been cut off, many will begin to starve. We have reached the crescendo of Aleppo’s suffering in year five of the Syrian civil war.

One clear August morning in 2012, in the early weeks of the battle for the city, a man approached a street corner shop and found a hundred shattered lutes scattered across the floor. Ibrahim al-Sukkar, the engineer who had made the lutes (Arabs know the instrument as the oud), was overwhelmed. He wandered between the tables of his workshop and peered up at the sky, suddenly visible through holes in the roof. He wept on the floor, amid the dust and ash.

Some of the wooden shards that lay around him had been lutes commissioned by musicians in Europe and America. Others were to be used by students in Damascus and Amman. Each oud was built for a specific purpose. In every shard Ibrahim saw a piece of himself, a memory scattered and charred by government bombs. He packed his bags and headed for Idlib, a few hours to the west, where he set up shop a second time. A year later, his workshop was destroyed again, this time by Islamist militants.

It was at this point that Ibrahim came to a stark realisation – he was a target. If barrel bombs from government helicopters could not succeed in destroying him, the Islamists would. The cost of sourcing materials and getting goods to market had become unmanageable. The society that had inspired his desire to make musical instruments was now trying to lynch him for it.

The 11 string courses of an oud, when plucked, lend the air that passes through its bowl the sounds of Arabic modes known as maqamat. Each one evokes an emotion. Hijaz suggests loneliness and melancholy. Ajam elicits light-heartedness and cheer. An oud player’s competence is judged by his or her ability to improvise using these modes, modulating between them to manipulate the listener’s mood. The luthier, the architect of the oud system, must be equal parts artist and scientist.

This is how Ibrahim al-Sukkar views himself. He is a trained mechanical engineer, but before that he was a lover of classical Arabic music. As a young man in the Syrian countryside, he developed a talent for playing the oud but his mathematical mind demanded that he should study the mechanics behind the music. Long hours in the workshop taking instruments apart led him to spend 25 years putting them together. Ibrahim’s ouds are known for their solid construction and, thanks to his obsessive experimentation with acoustics, the unparalleled volume they produce.

Ibrahim and I recently spoke using WhatsApp messenger. Today, he is lying low in the village where he was born in Idlib province, close to the Turkish border. Every so often, when he can, he sends some of his equipment through to Turkey. It will wait there in storage until he, too, can make the crossing. I asked him if he still felt that his life was in danger. “All musicians and artists in Syria are in danger now, but it’s a sensitive topic,” he wrote, afraid to say more. “I expect to be in Turkey some time in February. God willing, we will speak then.”

Ibrahim’s crossing is now more perilous than ever. Residents of Idlib are watching the developing siege of Aleppo with a sense of foreboding. Government forces are primed to besiege Idlib next, now that the flow of traffic and supplies between Aleppo and the Turkish border has been intercepted. And yet, to Ibrahim, the reward – the next oud – is worth the risk.

I bought my first oud from a Tunisian student in London in autumn 2014. It is a humble, unobtrusive instrument, with a gentle, wheat-coloured soundboard covering a cavernous, almond-shaped bowl. Some ouds are decorated with rosettes, wooden discs carved with dazzling patterns of Islamic geometry. Others are inlaid with mother-of-pearl. My instrument, however, is far simpler in design, decorated only with a smattering of nicks and scratches inflicted by the nails of impatient players, and the creeping patina imprinted by the oils of their fingers on its neck.

My instructor once told me that this oud was “built to last for ever”. Only recently did I discover the sticker hidden inside the body which reads: “Made in 2006 by Engineer Ibrahim al-Sukkar, Aleppo.” 

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle