To correct Merkel’s mistakes, EU leaders need to embrace ingenious realpolitik – even if involves the regime in Ankara
In August last year, Europe took a wrong turn. By welcoming all refugee seekers from Syria to stay in Germany, Angela Merkel single-handedly abrogated the Dublin III Regulation, which stipulates that refugees are to seek asylum in the first European country they set foot in. EU leadership and most national governments fell in line, which initiated a policy of “waving migrants through” to Central and Northern European countries of their choosing. As a consequence of these enticements, millions of people from the Middle East and Africa embarked on an arduous and often dangerous journey to Europe – many of them trying to escape persecution and war, others merely looking for better economic opportunities.
The EU and its member states have been struggling to come up with sensible ways to deal with the crisis: While pledging an intention to pursue a common European solution, most countries chose unilateral action, reinstating border controls, capping the influx of migrants, and in some cases, building fences. Quota systems to distribute new arrivals evenly across the EU were contemplated and failed because of resistance from Eastern European countries and passivity of others. Public discourse surrounding these developments has been either unhelpfully polarized or too cautious to bring about an environment in which a workable solution could have been found.
The agreement reached with Turkey on March 18 – albeit under circumstances that are far from ideal – came as a late, but necessary step towards what had always been everyone’s proclaimed goal: protecting Europe’s exterior borders, and consequently reducing the flow of migrants in order to create conditions under which the EU can come up with a practical scheme to help those that need it most. Because, as it turns out, the people that turned up at Europe’s borders were not necessarily those who were most urgently in need of help.
The debate surrounding the issue of migration has been strangely preoccupied with those who had the physical ability and the financial means to get to Europe, while paying little attention to those who only made it to the camps in Lebanon or Turkey, or those who have not been able to leave the war zones of Iraq or Syria at all. The percentage of refugees under international humanitarian law among migrants who have entered the EU these past weeks could be as low as 10%, according to head of the Greek ministerial team on the crisis.i Official figures by the UNHCR allow no pre-assessment of migrants’ status as potential refugees, but break down the figure of new arrivals since January 1 into 46% Syrians, 24% Afghanis, 15% Iraqis, and 15% from other countries.ii
Perhaps the most important feature of the deal with Turkey, which brought the shutdown of the Western Balkans route, is the signal it sends to those who are still contemplating the journey to Europe: the prompt and resolute implementation of the agreement illustrates that illegal pathways to Europe will be systematically closed down, that seeking asylum without a proper status as a refugee will likely be unsuccessful, and that the time when migrants got to choose a target country has ended. Ms. Merkel, the chief architect of the quid-pro quo with Turkey, who over the last few months had staunchly opposed autonomous action by EU countries and repeatedly condemned the closure of the Balkans route, seems to have come to understand the necessity of this move. In a 180-degree turn, Merkel effectively closed the Balkans route – arguably motivated in part by her own political survival – and silently put an end to the welcome culture she herself had been promoting since the beginning of the crisis.
Certainly, there could have been preferred negotiation partners than the administration of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, a loathsome autocrat with a bad human rights record. In exchange for taking back migrants from the Greek islands and for taking “all necessary measures” to prevent migrants from opening new sea or land routes to the European Union,iii Turkey has wrested significant concessions from the EU, most importantly the opening of a new chapter in negotiations about Turkey’s accession to EU membership, and the prospect of visa liberalization for Turkish citizens as early as June. Many have argued that this gives Turkey all the leverage with the EU. And Erdoğan has used the migration crisis to put pressure on the EU before, when he said Turkey could “open the doors to Greece and Bulgaria anytime and we can put the refugees on buses,” if Europe did not offer him a better deal.iv It is thus a well-founded concern that giving Erdoğan additional bargaining power, as this agreement does, might only reinforce his inflexible posture and increase his delusions and power hunger.
In a best-case scenario, however, the deal could benefit everyone: Europe, because it will lessen the migratory pressure. Refugees, because conditions in Turkish camps improve due to the €6bn in European aid money. And lastly, the deal could coerce Turkey to carry out reforms towards strengthening democracy, freedom of the press, and human rights. Despite the wording of the agreement, Turkish EU membership, for good reasons, will remain all but realistic for a long time to come. The visa-free travel regime, too, is attached to a long list of conditions. Trying to meet these requirements could strengthen those in Turkish politics trying to counter the President’s authoritarian tendencies and create opportunities to lift Turkey out of the international isolation the country increasingly finds itself in.
At this time it is also important not to be carried away by all the blame and criticism that has been heaped on Europe for the way it has handled the migration crisis. Countless opinion pieces in recent weeks featured images of migrants sitting in the mud of Idomeni. While they may provide a good news hook to proclaim an end to the “European project,” and to talk about the rise of mistrust and racism and the ultimate walling-off of the continent, they do little to address the larger problems and tend to downplay the good that has been done. In 2015, the EU-28 took in 1.26 million first-time asylum seekersv and provided them with accommodation, food, and financial assistance. This general stance will not be drastically reversed anytime soon: rather than turning into an anti-Islamic bastion, which is what some commentators seem to want you to believe, EU countries in 2016 will take more Muslim refugees than the U.S., Canada, and Australia combined.
When observing political developments related to the migration crisis, it also helps to remember that the EU is first and foremost a contractual union aimed at creating mutual benefits for its members. This is not to diminish the common European values and ideals, but to draw a realistic picture of its capacity to act. To view the EU as something more than a union of convenience – some sort of sacrosanct alliance of altruistic nations – or to expect a stable community decision whenever it is called to action, is to mistake political realities, and to prepare to be disappointed.
Whether the Turkey deal will work remains to be seen. Plenty of political, legal, and logistical obstacles still need to be overcome, and there will be major setbacks in the coming weeks. Even if Greece manages to set up an orderly process for returning migrants to Turkey, the establishment of a system to distribute the corresponding number of Syrian refugees that are sent back will be met with fierce opposition from several EU countries. In any case, the agreement with Turkey alone will not suffice to end the migration crisis. As new and old routes, such as the one from Libya across the Mediterranean to Italy, will open up, the rest of the EU must support the countries of the southern periphery to set up the necessary infrastructure to protect the common border, swiftly process claims for asylum, and adequately accommodate people while their cases are assessed.
By and large, the endgame to Europe’s migration crisis will have to play out like this: the EU needs to reduce the number of migrants by protecting its external borders and creating disincentives to risk the journey in the first place. This involves making it clear that attempts to enter Europe by irregular means will likely lead to a negative asylum decision. The vast majority of the €6bn in aid promised to Turkey should go directly towards improving the humanitarian conditions in the UNHCR-run camps in the country, and the EU will have to provide further assistance in terms of money and expertise to Greece to enable it to accommodate and process new arrivals. Lastly, perhaps the biggest challenge is posed by agreeing to a fair and workable system to distribute refugee seekers from Greece, Italy, Turkey, or their home countries, across the EU. This will be even more difficult the larger the shadow of Islamic terrorism in Brussels, Paris, or other places looms – even though the causal link between migration and terrorism is arguably weak.
i Austrian Press Agency, “Nur noch zehn Prozent echte Flüchtlinge,“ Die Presse, March 4, 2016, accessed March 31, 2016: http://diepresse.com/home/4939322/Nur-noch-zehn-Prozent-echte-Fluchtlinge
ii UNHCR Refugees/Migrants Emergency Response – Mediterranean, accessed March 30, 2016: http://data.unhcr.org/mediterranean/regional.php
iii “What’s in the E.U. Deal With Turkey? Controls, Concessions and Swaps,” The New York Times, March 18, 2016, accessed March 30, 2016: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/19/world/europe/european-union-turkey-mig...
iv “Turkey's Erdogan threatened to flood Europe with migrants: Greek website,” Reuters, February 8, 2016, accessed March 31, 2016: http://www.reuters.com/article/us-europe-migrants-eu-turkey-idUSKCN0VH1R0
v Eurostat asylum statistics, accessed March 31, 2016: http://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/statistics-explained/index.php/Asylum_stati...
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