The European Union’s Hollow Deal with Turkey

March 23, 2016 12:30 PM

When the European Council summit reached its agreement on refugees with Turkey in Brussels earlier in March, it was clear that both sides needed a deal almost irrespective of its contents. Nine elements were agreed to on paper, but the reality recalls Neville Chamberlain’s notorious declaration of “peace for our time” in 1938.

Under the accord all (irregular) migrants arriving in Greece on and after March 20 are to be sent back to Turkey. Because such collective expulsion from Europe has been criticized in the past on legal and moral grounds, the deal stipulates that these migrants be sent back only after they have been individually processed for seeking asylum in Greece in accordance with EU and international law. But the agreement assumes that Greece has a functioning asylum processing system capable of delivering legally defensible verdicts. It also assumes, equally dubiously, that Turkey is a genuinely “safe country” to return migrants to. Non-Syrian migrants currently do not have refugee status in Turkey, and Ankara could send them back to their country of origin. Depending on where that is, they might be ineligible for deportation to Turkey and hence left stranded in Greece.

Whether the new agreement can work is questionable, however. Earlier pledges of logistical and bureaucratic support for Greece by the rest of Europe have been largely ignored. One of two possibilities might now occur. Europe could set up a kangaroo court for asylum processing ignoring international conventions and risk getting struck down by European courts. Or—more likely as Europe remains a continent where the rule of law applies—lengthy processing delays develop for the continuous stream of irregular migrants from Turkey (1,662 arrived in Greece on March 20-21), resulting in the return of a very small number of, if any, migrants to Turkey on the April 4 target date. Thus irregular migrants from Turkey are likely to be stuck on Greek islands for an extended period, and Greek authorities will have to place them under guard to prevent them from escaping. Reception camps on Greece’s islands will have to be converted into detention centers. The agreement specifies that “irregular migrants” are to be kept in so-called closed reception centers. In response to this agreement, refugee organizations like UNHCR have scaled back their involvement in refugee reception at the so-called hotspots in Greece, adding further administrative strain on Greek authorities.

It is unclear who precisely is responsible for implementing what is likely to be a coercive returning of irregular migrants to Turkey, though according to the European Commission, this task is to be handled by 25 Greek readmission officers, 250 Greek police officers, 50 return experts deployed by Frontex, with 1,500 additional police officers seconded on the basis of bilateral police cooperation arrangements. Any migrant arriving in Greece will very likely resist being deported back to Turkey. A clash between the police and migrants, aired on television, would hardly make the task easier. In an ominous sign of what might come, two refugees self-immolated earlier this week at the Idomeni camp by the Greek-Macedonian border.

The one positive element of the EU deal is its declaration that the “costs of the return operations of irregular migrants will be covered by the EU.” The European Commission estimates the practical costs (e.g., not including any economic support for Turkey) of implementation at €280 million, a sum likely to be exceeded. The detention centers under construction on Greek islands are likely to be large and durable. Europe’s deal with Turkey recalls the approach of Australia, which has for years detained and processed irregular migrants on offshore islands.

This situation offers Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras a cynical opportunity. He could keep operating the detention centers, helping ease a political problem for Europe, in return for additional debt relief, as advocated by the International Monetary Fund, securing the IMF’s engagement in the Greek financial rescue program. In the end, Greece won’t have to sell islands to pay down its debts but could benefit from renting a few of them out to help solve Europe’s current migration emergency.

Another part of the refugee agreement calls for one-for-one exchange of refugees. For every migrant returned from Greece to Turkey, a Syrian refugee from Turkey will be resettled in Europe. This exchange, which some critics describe as “quota,” is capped at 72,000 people. The reality, however, is flimsier. The first 18,000 refugees from Turkey to be resettled are to enter the European Union as part of the Council of Europe’s voluntary commitments made in June 2015 to resettle 20,000 refugees from outside Europe [pdf]. Counting this 18,000 figure from an earlier pledge toward the new commitment of 72,000 makes European leaders look generous, when in fact they are not.  The remaining 54,000 resettlement slots are to be filled via similar voluntary arrangements, which are likely to be offset by an earlier reallocation of up to 160,000 refugees already in the European Union. Europe is not committing to a new quota but rather recycling earlier unfulfilled commitments. It is wishful thinking that these new commitments will be met any more than the previous ones were. The agreement also stipulates that the new EU-Turkey provisions will be reviewed if the returns reach 72,000 and discontinued if returns exceed that number. Thus 72,000 is just a potential maximum number of returnees that can be attained only if Germany accepts the vast majority. If Chancellor Angela Merkel wants her accord to succeed at least initially, she will have to do the heavy lifting herself, as other EU countries are unlikely to step up.

The same appears to be true for the financial facility of the initial €3 billion for refugee support in Turkey. The European Commission [pdf] notes that to date only Germany and Finland have contributed to it, but—very unusual for EU agreements—there is no distributional cost key or any method to coerce member states to contribute. In the end, Angela Merkel is going to also have to pay herself, if she wants her deal to succeed.

The agreement finally stipulates that all components will “be taken forward in parallel and monitored jointly on a monthly basis.” This suggests that the future political commitments made by the European Union, for instance, to grant Turkey visa-free travel to the European Union and reopen another chapter in accession negotiations by June 2016 are empty promises highly unlikely to ever be fulfilled. In all probability the deal will have collapsed before then. Of course it cannot be completely dismissed that the Turkish government suddenly cracks down massively on irregular migration to Europe and actually manages to greatly reduce these flows. This would require a substantial law enforcement effort, but since Ankara is already engaged in a bloody secessionist struggle with parts of its Kurdish minority, it is unclear if it has the required political will and resources. In the end, it seems likely that President Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s strongman, who also wants to change the Turkish constitution to become a more powerful executive president, has other priorities.

Chancellor Merkel may reap some dearly purchased political benefits, as she now again has managed to monopolize a centrist policy area (migration) where she might otherwise have been politically vulnerable to attacks from Germany’s center-left—always important a year before the next parliamentary elections in Germany.

Meanwhile, the fact that the easiest and busiest route into Europe (i.e., the border between Greece and Macedonia) remains closed by barbed wire and police will continue to reduce migrant inflows into the rest of Europe and especially Germany (or at least redirect them to more difficult illegal migration routes). Ironically, Merkel continues to politically benefit (through lower inflows to Germany) from the actions of countries like Austria, Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, and Macedonia, even as she publicly criticizes their leaders.

Europe faces an inevitable inward migration pressure over the next decade, as young people seek better lives irrespective of the political situation at home. Europe continues to lack credible external border control and a credible common financial vehicle to pay for it, while migration and residency policies continue to languish. This unsustainable situation will gradually undermine European economic and political integration from within through the election of increasingly nationalist anti-European leaders in the mold of Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orban.

The agenda before European leaders—and particularly Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande, who could make the necessary difference through a new Franco-German proposal—is establishing a comprehensive European migration and mobility union (MMU [pdf]), which I described last year. Hopefully, in traditional EU fashion, once all other options have been exhausted, leaders will come around to doing the right thing.