Seda Gürkan is lecturer at Université libre de Bruxelles (ULB), Department of Political Science and European Studies Institute and visiting scholar at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam (VU). She is a graduate of London School of Economics (LSE), ULB and Diplomatic School of Spanish Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Madrid, Spain). Her research interests include EU-Turkey relations, Turkish politics, parliamentary diplomacy, Europeanisation and European integration theories.

Ramona Coman is professor in political science, President of the Institute for European Studies (IEE-ULB) and member of Cevipol (Centre d’études de la vie politique).  She is the Coordinator of the Jean Monnet Module Rule of law and mutual trust in global and European governance (599377-EPP-1-2018-1-BE-EPPJMO-MODULE).

The EU–Turkey deal in the 2015 ‘refugee crisis’: when intergovernmentalism cast a shadow on the EU’s normative power


The European Union (EU) has often been portrayed as a ‘normative power’ both by academics and political actors (Manners 2002; Withman 2011). However, in 2015 the dramatic conditions which led people to flee their homelands and seek better futures in Europe had given rise to various questions pertaining not only to the ability of the EU to solve fast-burning crises, but also questions about the EU’s commitment to its principles and values. While in most EU Member States the rhetoric of ‘fear’ and ‘the exclusionary rhetoric of othering prevailed’ (Krzyżanowski et al. 2018, p. 1; Thielemann 2018, p. 66), calls for strengthening European solidarity failed. Consequently, the EU opted to externalize the issue by concluding international agreements with third states, in particular with Turkey. The EU–Turkey Joint Action Plan (JAP)—provisionally agreed to in October 2015 and activated in November 2015—permitted the denial of entry to refugees who were arriving by way of the Aegean Sea, leading many to argue that the EU was undermining its human rights commitments (Lavenex 2018). Another source of suspicion was related to the rapprochement between the EU and Turkey, despite Turkey’s declining commitment to the Copenhagen political criteria (Niemann and Zaun 2018; Slominski and Trauner 2018).

EU–Turkey deal: A gap between norms and actions 

This gap between the EU’s norms and actions has attracted considerable attention. Observers have argued that the so-called ‘refugee crisis’ has turned into a ‘solidarity crisis’ (Grimmel and Giang 2017; Takle 2017) or an ‘identity crisis’ (Rizcallah 2019, pp. 249, 256). In this regard, the EU–Turkey deal has been examined by tracing the institutional process that led to its entry into force (Smeets and Beach 2020) or by analysing the impact of the deal on the EU’s normative identity (Lavenex 2018; Martin 2019; Gürkan 2019). This article seeks to explain the EU’s response to the 2015 refugee challenge from a different angle. Here, the focus is on the justifications put forward by EU institutions, as well as on the power relations between them in the process of forming institutional preferences. More specifically, the question is why the EU opted to conclude an agreement with Turkey, despite this being in contradiction with its own values. Theoretically, to explain this outcome, this article builds on the normative/civilian power literature (Manners 2002; Duchêne 1972) and the new intergovernmentalist claims (Bickerton et al. 2015). While the former facilitates the examination of how EU institutions, beyond internal divisions and struggles, motivate their preferences and positions on the issue at stake, the latter provides a framework to understand how power relations at the EU level shaped the final outcome. This article examines the EU’s normative power in action and argues that in formulating the EU’s response to the refugee challenge, security prevailed over normative considerations, in particular over solidarity principle and humanitarian concerns, leaning the EU towards a civilian power. We devote particular attention to the attempts of EU institutions to translate the principle of solidarity into concrete action (Ross and Borgman-Prebil 2010; Grimmel and Giang 2017; Ciornei and Recchi 2017; Bonjour et al. 2018), and trace different interpretations of solidarity in connection with the refugee challenge in 2015–2016.

Values vs. Security? 

Drawing on content analysis, the empirical part demonstrates that although internally divided (Guiraudon 2018; Ripoll Servent 2019), the European Parliament (EP) emphasized the importance of norms and values as an illustration of the EU’s normative power, the European Council and the Council (hereafter European/Council) privileged security and a state-centred conception of international politics as an illustration of the EU’s civilian power, with the Commission oscillating between normative and civilian power. This article concludes that the completion of the EU–Turkey agreement not only challenges the ontological characterization of the EU as normative power, but also lends support to the new intergovernmentalism as the outcome of the EU–Turkey agreement was a reflection of the priorities of the European/Council, rather than the preferred option of supranational institutions.


The article analyzing the EU–Turkey deal is structured as follows: The first section gives an account of the context and positions of key actors during the ‘refugee crisis’ from 2015 until the EU–Turkey statement in March 2016. The second section presents the theoretical argument, including an overview of how we operationalize civilian/normative power concepts. The third section outlines methodological considerations. The fourth section offers an in-depth analysis of the main actors’ preferences by highlighting their preferred solutions at different stages of the crisis as a result of the evolution of their power relations. The conclusion discusses broader theoretical and policy implications of main findings.

Photo European Union, 2015 | Source: EC – Audiovisual Service

Keywords: EU-Turkey deal, Refugee crisis · Normative Power Europe · Civilian power · New Intergovernmentalism · EU institutions