Sultans of Swindling: The EU-Turkey Refugee Deal as Ottoman Tribute


In more ways than one, the EU-Turkey refugee deal mirrors the interaction between European powers and the Ottoman states from centuries of yore.  Three significant resemblances stand out: first, the exchange of European money for the safe passage of vulnerable persons across the Mediterranean Sea; second, the preference on the part of the Europeans to rely on financial incentives rather than naval force as a solution; and third, the continuation of an unstable West-Near East relationship characterized more by mistrust and self-interest than sincerity.  Each of these three points of comparison will be explored in the following sections with the purpose of linking the current EU-Turkey refugee deal to historical ‘Europe-Ottoman’ arrangements.

Exchanging Money for Safe Passage across the Mediterranean Sea

In the current EU-Turkey refugee deal, the EU has agreed to allot €3 billion to Turkey in order to help better facilitate refugees on Turkish soil, with an additional €3 billion provisioned to extend the resettlement program at a later time as needed[1].  The major aim of this arrangement is to prevent human traffickers from profiting from the dangerous transportation of refugees and economic migrants from Turkey to Greece, while at the same time granting safe passage to vetted refugees seeking to reach Europe.

At its core, this deal is not unlike the arrangement from the days of the Ottoman Empire when American and European sailors were withheld by Barbary pirates for ransom.  The safe release of captured sailors and persons taken captive during slave raids depended on whether the Barbary State sultans’ demands for ransom and tribute were met.  This exchange of money for the safe passage of persons across the Mediterranean Sea was historically a large source of income for the Barbary States[2], and we see through the EU-Turkey refugee deal that, unfortunately, it still pays to control the flow of vulnerable persons from the Near East and North Africa to Europe.

European Reliance on Financial Incentives Rather than Force

When dealing with the Ottomans, and especially the Barbary States, European powers such as Britain and France preferred to pay tribute in exchange for unmolested transit across the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean[3]. This occurred despite the fact that by the late 18th century, the British and French navies could have handily crushed the Barbary State navies had they so desired.  In much the same way, the wealthy and powerful states of Europe today, rather than use the significant naval capabilities at their disposal to forcefully prevent human trafficking across the Mediterranean Sea, have relied more on financial incentives to the Near East and North Africa in order to stem illegal flows.

This continuity of policy is best typified in a contemporary example: the tens of millions of Euros paid to the late Muammar Qaddafi to help contain migration from Libya into Italy.  In 2010 while on a trip to Italy, Qaddafi sought what was essentially a €5 billion bribe from the EU in order to keep illegal flows of mostly African migrants in check[4].  The EU wisely rejected this proposal, signing instead a more modest €50 million deal with the Libyan leader to stem the flow of persons from Africa.  With the EU now setting aside as much as €6 billion for Turkey to help clamp down on migration, Qaddafi’s initial demand of €5 billion no longer seems far-fetched—in fact, it now seems remarkably prescient.

Regarding the waters between Turkey and Greece, the EU and Frontex together with NATO have, despite their considerable naval capacity for preventing human trafficking, preferred instead to rely more on the EU’s financial solution while limiting naval patrols to mostly surveillance and reconnaissance[5].  This mirrors the long-lasting practice of powerful European states like Britain and France relying on protection payments made to the Barbary States in order to facilitate trade on the open seas rather than confronting them with naval forces.

A Relationship of Mistrust and Self-Interest, Not Sincerity

While most of the points of action in the current EU-Turkey refugee deal are clearly aimed at the crisis at hand, other points such as visa-free travel for Turkish citizens, furthering the Customs Union between the EU and Turkey, and a re-energized accession process for Turkish membership in the EU do not relate to the refugee crisis[6].  Instead, they are sweeteners to the deal that work much like bribes.

That sweeteners such as these were seen as necessary inclusions in the deal shows that a significant part of the relationship between Europe and Turkey is based on convenient self-interest rather than trust and sincerity.  Elizabeth Collett, director of the Brussels-based Migration Policy Institute Europe, has said that this is “not a deal that was made on the basis of mutual trust. It feels very political, and it was always going to be fragile”[7].  With Turkish president Recep Erdogan recently threatening to call off the deal if EU preconditions for visa-free travel are not lifted, the deal does indeed appear unstable and marred by mistrust[8].

Broadly speaking, the wariness that plagues EU-Turkey relations today mirrors the suspicion that European powers and the Ottomans historically harbored towards each other.  Tribute and ransom payments from European powers to Ottoman states were essentially products of extortion, and the peace they were supposed to procure was frequently broken, making relations all the more unstable.  In the current EU-Turkey refugee deal, the inclusion of points of action that have little or nothing to do with the refugee crisis mirror the convenient bribery of the past, while Erdogan’s increasingly threatening tone reflects the flimsiness of a deal with mistrust at its core.  At the most basic level, these trust issues are inherent, as they expose persistent civilizational cleavages that fit the Huntingtonian paradigm.


This research has been conducted with the limited aim of showing three significant ways in which the current EU-Turkey refugee deal and historical arrangements between European and Ottoman states resemble each other.  The first concerns European payments to the Near East and North Africa for the guaranteed safe passage of vulnerable persons across the Mediterranean Sea.  Next is the European reluctance to take a forceful naval approach when dealing with the illegal flows of seafaring persons into Europe, preferring instead financial solutions.  The third resemblance is the unstable and mistrustful nature of the relations that have persisted, with convenience, self-interest and threats contributing to the fragility of arrangements.  These three reflections provide a glimpse into the continuity to how Western and Islamic civilizations have often interacted throughout history.  Such arrangements should be seen as features rather than bugs of both the historical and contemporary relationship.


[1] European Council, EU-Turkey statement, 18 March 2016, 2016 [ /en/press/press-releases/2016/03/18-eu-turkey-statement/], 19 June 2016.

[2] Robert F. Turner, “President Thomas Jefferson and the Barbary Pirates” in Newport Papers no. 35, 2010, pp. 157-171.

[3] Office of the Historian, Barbary Wars, 1801-1805 and 1815-1816, [], 18 June 2016.

[4] Ian Traynor, EU keen to strike deal with Muammar Gaddafi on immigration, 2010, [], 18 June 2016.

[5] North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Assistance for the refugee and migrant crisis in Europe, 2016, [], 19 June 2016.

[6] European Council, EU-Turkey statement, 18 March 2016, 2016 [ /en/press/press-releases/2016/03/18-eu-turkey-statement/], 19 June 2016.

[7] Erin Cunningham, Europe’s migrant deal with Turkey may be unraveling. But it was flawed from the start., 2016, [], 20 June 2016.

[8] Hanne Cokelaere, Recep Tayyip Erdogan: No Turkey visa waiver, no refugee deal, 2016, [], 20 June 2016.


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