Europe’s Illusory Migration Deal with Turkey

March 10, 2016 3:30 PM

Chancellor Angela Merkel surprised her European partners on March 8 by negotiating a new and supposedly far-reaching deal with Turkey in which Turkey is to be rewarded for helping to stanch the flow of migrants from the Middle East into Europe. But as Donald Trump would know, the best sort of deal in politics occurs when someone gets something in return for what that party would have done anyway—or manages to alter the facts on the ground without doing much in return. By that standard, Merkel appears to have salvaged a European solution to the migration crisis. But it is the European border vision of Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban, not hers, that is quickly being implemented.

In theory, the new deal would end illegal migration to Europe through Turkey, which agreed to accept the return of any illegal migrant apprehended in Greece. It would also enable Merkel to continue to claim that Europe’s borders remain open, because the deal envisions a 1-1 swap arrangement in which one Syrian migrant would be transported directly from Turkey to Europe for each illegal migrant returned from Greece to Turkey. The idea here is to deny human smugglers their business model in the Aegean Sea.

Turkey would also receive more than the previously agreed €3 billion in financial support from the European Union, restart its EU accession negotiations, and likely benefit more from earlier visa-free travel to the borderless Schengen area than previously agreed. An added implication is that the European Union would refrain from criticizing the Turkish government’s dismal human rights record, including its accelerating crackdown on freedom of speech.

If the deal is approved by EU leaders at their next summit in a few weeks, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey—who forcefully shut down the country’s biggest opposition newspaper Sunday night—should be satisfied with the price he has extracted for appearing to help Europe and also, not least, Chancellor Merkel. Moreover, the agreement will almost certainly have next to no impact on migration to Europe or on the plight of refugees. Thus Erdogan hence managed to get paid for solving a problem that others’ in Europe had already dealt with.

This week the Macedonian, Serbian, Croatian, and Slovenian borders were closed to all migrants, blocking the most widely used path northwards from Greece to the rest of Europe. Some diversion of migrants to other northbound routes—through Albania, Bulgaria, or Romania—should be expected. But why Turkey’s assistance had to be purchased at such a high political price is not obvious. Certainly, the principal beneficiary of the deal with Turkey is Greece, which may be able to return tens of thousands of migrants stranded within its borders. Only a few years after Germany and Greece were in verbal warfare over the Greek insolvency crisis, Merkel has become Athens’s best friend in Europe.

The closed borders in the Balkans are unlikely to be reopened anytime soon, even if the deal with Turkey is approved. In the end, the governments of Austria, Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, and Macedonia acted unilaterally precisely because they didn’t trust the solidity of Europe’s common response to the crisis or President Erdogan of Turkey and didn’t want to suddenly be left hosting tens of thousands of stranded migrants. This mistrust is unlikely to abate, as Merkel’s deal is filled with wishful thinking and will not survive the real world test.

First, the envisioned mass group deportation of irregular migrants from Greece back to Turkey is probably illegal under Europe’s commitments to the Geneva Conventions, which calls for individual evaluation of asylum cases and not mass deportations. Judicial review of this deal may well strike it down.

Second, the 1-1 swap model with Turkey is a nonscalable fantasy. EU leaders acknowledge that it does “not establish any new commitments on Member States as far as relocation and resettlement is concerned.” In other words, European leaders assume that any refugees accepted directly from Turkey will come out of the already agreed 160,000 quota slated for relocation from inside the European Union. While EU leaders should be applauded for trying to replace illegal migration through Turkey with a new regularized and legal route for refugees to enter Europe, it defies belief that EU member states will be more willing to accept refugees directly from Turkey than they have been willing to accept relocations from fellow EU members Greece and Italy. To date only a ludicrously low 885 refugees have been relocated, a fact certain to dampen Ankara’s willingness to accept returned irregular migrants from Greece. Rather than a 1-1 swap arrangement, this deal actually appears only to be a 0.00001–0.00001 arrangement.

The Turkish government itself moreover expects the number of returned migrants from Greece to be just “in the thousands,” suggesting that the number of refugees sent directly from Turkey to the European Union could hypothetically be managed within the 160,000 quota. But that would require a near complete stop to any illegal migration from Greece to Turkey. As tens of thousands of migrants have arrived already in Greece just this year, this does not appear to be a credible assumption.

Finally, the chance of a Turkish government that is busy shutting down opposition newspapers acceding to the European Union is of course doubtful, and it seems questionable if this Turkish government and Brussels can reach any kind of concrete agreements on needed pre-accession reforms. The domestic benefits to both Erdogan and the European Union of maintaining the appearance of progressing on negotiations will be short-lived.

In the end, Erdogan may merely offer to take back migrants from Greece in return for billions of euros from the European Union and see visa-free travel for Turks in Europe brought forward. Not a bad day in office in Ankara, if—and that is a big if—the European Union can actually agree to give Turks visa-free travel.

Merkel, on the other hand, has probably overpaid in political terms for this deal but possesses no means to implement it, as she cannot compel other European countries to reopen their borders or make them take any additional refugees from Turkey.

But that might be just the point here. She can appear true to her policies, strike a (doomed) deal with Turkey, while remaining powerless to prevent other countries from closing their borders and achieving her actual goal of greatly reducing migrant inflows to Germany.

The proposed deal with Turkey appears to be little more than a political Potemkin village erected to save the Chancellor’s political face.