If the EU is to stay true to its humanitarian values, the deal with Turkey must be accompanied by the large-scale resettlement of refugees and respect for the rule of law. It is not a blueprint for deals with third countries in North Africa.
“Alarmingly short-sighted and inhumane” – that is how Amnesty International qualified the EU-Turkey deal. Six months later, the EU is using the agreement with Ankara as a model that should be at the heart of migration-deals with other third countries. So it’s time to take a look at what the EU-Turkey cooperation on refugees did to the EU’s credibility as promoter of democracy and fundamental freedoms.
As a result of the major refugee crisis, over one million people had reached the shores of the EU with the help of smugglers. For months, coordination and burden sharing at the European level failed spectacularly. The only ‘solutions’ found were national ones: Hungarian PM Viktor Orban set the tone by building high fences around his country. The EU-Turkey deal was certainly not an ideal answer to the crisis, but the only viable alternative that aimed at replacing the dangerous and illegal routes with a safe and legal passage for the most vulnerable refugees. Its implementation, however, leaves much to be desired.
What are the results achieved? As the number of people risking their life by embarking on the deadly sea route to Greece has drastically dropped, so did the number of deaths in the Aegean. With a six-billion-euro pledge for the coming three years, the EU is heavily investing in improving the lives of 3.1 million refugees in Turkey. In addition, the overall situation of refugees has advanced as they’ve been given better legal protection and they have been given access to the labour market.
EU values at stake
The safe passage for refugees has, however, not been created. In the midst of the crisis, German chancellor Merkel has even appealed to a ‘coalition of the willing’ (realizing that joint EU action is not feasible) to take annually 500,000 people in via the UN Refugee Agency. Despite this, only a shameful 2000 Syrians have in the last six months been resettled to an EU-country – the same number that arrived in half a day on the Greek islands a year ago. And while the burden-sharing with the Turkish population isn’t happening, the solidarity with Greece is also failing, in that the pace of relocations of refugees to other EU countries is very low.
Furthermore, the assumption that Turkey is a ‘safe third country’ remains questionable. While there have been several reports of shootings by guards at the Turkish-Syrian border, the number of asylum requests in the EU filed by Turkish citizens is now also rising in the aftermath of the failed coup attempt of 15 July.
And finally, the relationship between the EU and a candidate country cannot boil down to a transactional deal whereby Ankara is paid to keep the refugees and in return Brussels turns a blind eye to worrying internal developments. Including the acceleration of the accession talks and the granting of visa free travel in the EU-Turkey deal was, therefore, also a fundamental mistake because it gave the impression that EU standards are fluid if other interests prevail and thereby implying that we don’t take our own values very seriously.
The need for affirmative action
The deal with Turkey will turn out to be a practical and a moral failure for the EU if no large scale resettlement of refugees is taking place. That would mean that while the EU’s borders have been fortified, no person fleeing war can any longer ask for protection in Europe. While improving the standards of living for the refugees in Turkey, we must share the burden of the Turkish population by providing shelter for the most vulnerable ones. In the same spirit, we should remind the European leaders of their pledges to relocate refugees from Greece and Italy.
The return of refugees to Turkey is so far not happening, but is a delicate part of the deal. Frankly speaking, even returning asylum seekers to Greece or Hungary under the Dublin agreement is currently questionable from a humanitarian perspective. For that reason, the EU-Turkey deal should not be used as a model for agreements with third countries in North-Africa, where most countries don’t have any legal infrastructure to provide refugees protection. It could further reduce irregular migration, but the price we would pay in terms of moral values is too high: illegal push back of refugees to unsafe countries.
If the EU wants to maintain that human rights are at the core of its values, this should especially apply to its most effective foreign policy instrument: the accession process. There are no credible alternatives, so it is important to sustain the EU-Turkey deal, while trying to improve its implementation. Nevertheless, the number one priority in our dialogue with Turkey must be the respect for the rule of law. An unstable and authoritarian Turkey is a much bigger threat to Europe than the collapse of the deal with Ankara. The new UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres put it wisely: “We can’t deter people fleeing for their lives. They will come. The choice we have is how well we manage their arrival. And how humanely.”