Is the EU-Turkey Refugee Deal on the Ropes?
A selection of experts answer a new question from Judy Dempsey on the foreign and security policy challenges shaping Europe’s role in the world.
Fiona Adamson, Senior lecturer in international relations at SOAS, University of London
Although both Turkey and Germany have at times threatened to pull out of the March 2016 EU-Turkey refugee deal, all indicators point to its survival, despite the heated rhetoric from both sides. Why? The answer is simple. The deal is solely one of convenience—a pragmatic bargain struck between two parties based on a realpolitik-driven calculation of interests. Europe wants to stem the tide of migrants reaching its shores; Turkey wants cash and other benefits.
The deal may pose an administrative burden for Greece and threaten scores of migrants, but the interests in its success almost guarantee that it will not be scrapped. Despite Europe’s concerns about Turkey’s massive government-led purge and crackdown in the wake of the July 2016 coup attempt and the diplomatic rows over Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s use of inflammatory rhetoric against Europe, the desire to keep Turkey as a partner in curbing migration flows is likely to outweigh any sense of moral outrage.
The EU has similar arrangements with Morocco and Tunisia and is seeking further agreements with Jordan, Lebanon, and numerous African states. As such, the EU-Turkey deal is part of a larger strategy of outsourcing migration control, which is set to continue.
Raphael Bossong, Associate at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP)
The March 2016 EU-Turkey refugee deal will formally survive any suspension of Ankara’s EU accession negotiations. Turkey needs the earmarked funds, takes back far fewer refugees from Greece than are resettled in the EU, and has no interest in major flows of transit migration from Central Asia. Meanwhile, the UN refugee agency has pointed to the onset of return migration to Syria, which decreases the credibility of Turkish threats to flood Europe with migrants.
The EU will not voluntarily terminate the deal, as doing so would spell trouble for the union’s wider strategy of external migration management. Rightly or wrongly, conservative European leaders continue to see the agreement as proof that migration can be stopped before it reaches EU borders, if enough will and resources are mobilized. For liberals, cancellation would risk more deaths and a further militarization of borders in the Western Balkans and Eastern Mediterranean.
Yet escalating rhetoric about Turkish asylum seekers in Europe and a growing number of court cases that halt returns to Turkey limit operational coordination and the practical use of the deal. So there is already a return to more arbitrary border control practices in Turkey and increased pressures in Greece. Internal EU reforms to bolster efficiency and solidarity in migration policies are therefore as urgent as ever.
Bahadır Kaleağası, Chief executive officer of the Turkish Industry and Business Association (TÜSİAD)
The EU and Turkey are certainly not living through the best of times in their relations. A better refugee deal than the one reached in March 2016 could have been possible, but the current agreement is still working.
It is always easy to propel pessimism and negative policies in times of crisis. But political tensions should not harm people who did not create them—in this case, EU citizens, Turkish nationals, and refugees. Turkey has failed to go beyond the extraordinary state of emergency declared after the July 2016 coup attempt and restore the rule of law and freedoms. At the same time, as the European Parliament requested in its latest report on Turkey, EU countries can do better in cooperating with Turkey on combating terrorism and moving forward with visa liberalization for Turkish citizens traveling to the EU.
The gray areas in Turkey’s antiterrorism law and the country’s protection of private data are also key issues. Turkey should be encouraged to introduce biometric passports for its citizens to provide EU countries with a digital security tool that is more efficient than the current visa regime. The EU and Turkey may be far from the best of times, but the weakening of Turkey’s EU accession process has so far been promoting the worst of times.
Stefan Lehne, Visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe
There have been many threats by Turkish politicians to end the March 2016 refugee deal with the EU. And it is true that several provisions have not been fully implemented and that a key carrot for Turkey—visa-free travel to the EU—remains stuck. Still, the agreement has proved more resilient than expected and delivers relatively few irregular crossings and a low number of drownings. This is mainly due to two reasons.
First, by building walls and fences on its borders with Iraq, Syria, and Iran and by imposing visa requirements on a number of countries, Turkey has made it much harder for migrants and refugees to reach the country. Not least for security reasons, Ankara has no interest in again becoming a major transit country attracting large numbers of migrants from Asia, the Middle East, and Africa.
Second, Turkey needs the money. Most of the initial €3 billion ($3.5 billion) that the EU promised Turkey for the years 2016–2017 has been contracted, and the rate of disbursement has increased. While this money primarily goes to the refugees, it also greatly benefits the Turkish economy. At a time of rather slow growth, Turkey can hardly afford to forgo these financial inflows.
The Turkish leadership will certainly continue to try to leverage the refugee agreement in its relations with EU, but it is ultimately unlikely to discontinue an arrangement that is so manifestly in its own interest.
John O’Brennan, Senior lecturer and Jean Monnet professor of European integration at the National University of Ireland, Maynooth
The March 2016 EU-Turkey refugee deal was reached under the most difficult circumstances. A fundamental objection to the agreement was that it contravened international human rights protections that the EU had signed up to.
Just as crucially, the deal drove a coach-and-four through the credibility of the EU enlargement process. Back in 2005, Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) government had accelerated EU-linked reforms and appeared on a genuine path of convergence. That changed in 2006–2007, when then Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan began to chart a neo-Ottoman foreign policy, which increasingly clashed with EU priorities, and the AKP set down a path of strangling Turkey’s emerging pluralism. The EU cannot maintain what is now an entirely fraudulent accession process with Turkey: Ankara has moved farther away from EU norms, especially on the rule of law and freedom of association, and to continue negotiating with Turkey under its current illiberal regime brings the entire accession process into not just disrepute but utter disgrace.
The Copenhagen criteria for EU membership matter. If the union continues negotiating with Turkey and rewarding it for behavior that is clearly transgressive of EU norms, then those norms are emptied of any meaningful content. The EU needs a collective solution to the migration issue, but not at the expense of the integrity of the enlargement process.
Marc Pierini, Visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe
Since its inception in March 2016, the EU-Turkey refugee agreement has been heavily criticized for running counter to an EU directive on the application of the UN’s 1951 Refugee Convention and because Turkey deems the EU’s promised package of €3 billion ($3.5 billion) to be slow in coming.
The reality is that taken in isolation, the agreement has brought social benefits to Syrian refugees in Turkey and their host communities, financial benefits to Turkey by alleviating its burden, and political benefits to EU politicians by reducing the flow of refugees. In addition, the agreement remains the fastest humanitarian package in EU aid history—despite all narratives to the contrary.
Ramping up the current crisis with the EU might be tempting for the Turkish leadership for domestic political reasons. It is, however, doubtful that the refugee agreement is the best vehicle for such an end. After all, it is hard to imagine political leaders forcibly removing refugee families from camps in Turkey’s southeast and putting them in boats to Greece or on the road to Bulgaria when all the technical bodies involved in Turkey—the health and education ministries, the agency for emergency situations, and the Red Crescent—have expressed their satisfaction with this humanitarian operation.
Gianni Riotta, Member of the Council on Foreign Relations
The conversations on the beaches of Southern Europe have turned quite awful this summer. In my native Sicily, people openly discuss whether it is still safe to eat fish for dinner, since so many corpses of migrants are being eaten off the coast of Africa. Urban legends of macabre discoveries of human body parts in fishing nets are spread by crusty sailors every day. There is a dark underside of the polished migration debate that never reaches front pages or talk shows yet gnaws bitterly at public opinion.
So when the EU-Turkey refugee deal was signed in March 2016, the Economist considered it “messy but necessary.” The deal worked, and the Western Balkan migration route was—more or less—closed off. Thousands of desperate souls remained trapped in Europe, and millions more in Turkey, fed by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the promise of fresh EU money.
Over a year later, Ankara is in the grip of an authoritarian political transformation while Europe waits for German Chancellor Angela Merkel to win September’s general election. French President Emmanuel Macron left Italy alone to face 11,000 more migrants just in the final days of June. So the refugee deal, although messier than before, will remain necessary. Unfortunately, it is just one of the many placebos against a biblical migration from poor Africa to childless Europe that will continue throughout the twenty-first century.
Stephen Szabo, Resident senior fellow at the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies
The EU’s March 2016 refugee deal with Turkey will hold because it is in the interests of Brussels, Berlin, and Ankara. The hard rhetoric emanating from Ankara on Europe, especially on Germany, should not divert attention from the fact that it is in Turkey’s interest to maintain its economic relationship with both Berlin and the EU. Germany is Turkey’s largest trading partner, and the EU is committed to transferring €4.5 billion ($5.3 billion) to Turkey over the next three years as part of its support to prepare Turkey for EU membership.
The prospects of visa liberalization for Turkish citizens traveling to the EU and of an expanded common market with the EU are also important incentives. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has made clear that German and European business remains welcome and safe in Turkey. Germany will begin the hot phase of its parliamentary election campaign in early September, and both the center-left Social Democrats and Bavaria’s conservative Christian Social Union have already gone on the offensive regarding Turkey and refugees. However, Libya and Italy seem to be the more immediate danger than Syria and Turkey.
Rhetoric may overtake long-term interests, but it is important to watch what political leaders do rather than what they threaten.
Eleonora Tafuro Ambrosetti, Marie Curie fellow at the Middle East Technical University in Ankara
The EU-Turkey refugee deal in its original form has failed, though it promises to endure in a ramshackle fashion. In March 2016, the EU promised Turkey three things: money, visa-free travel for Turkish citizens, and acceleration of Turkey’s stagnating EU membership process. The EU failed to deliver on the last two points—largely due to the deterioration of Turkish democracy after the failed coup in July 2016—and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu threatened the EU on several occasions with abandoning the deal.
Yet, both Turkey and the EU want the agreement to hold. It provides Ankara with political leverage vis-à-vis Brussels as well as much-needed financial support. Despite constant bitter words directed toward the EU, especially Germany, Ankara has strategic interests in keeping the relationship alive. Two crucial aspects are Turkey’s need to balance and diversify its relations to avoid overdependence on Russia and its need for commercial interaction with the EU. Ankara’s normalization of relations with Moscow after a Turkish fighter jet downed a Russian plane in November 2015 is a shaky achievement; Turkey remains a weaker partner than Russia. Russian President Vladimir Putin will capitalize on this, and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan knows it. At least, he should.
Nathalie Tocci, Director of the Italian Institute of International Affairs
The EU-Turkey relationship is on the ropes, and the recent deterioration of Turkey’s ties with Germany has brought broader relations to the brink once again. But does this mean that the March 2016 EU-Turkey migration statement risks collapsing? Arguably not. The deal never worked the way it was meant to: it never led to the resettlement of significant numbers of Syrian refugees from Turkey to the EU, to the reinvigoration of Turkey’s EU accession process, or to visa liberalization for Turkish citizens traveling to the EU.
But the deal has held because the give-and-take underpinning it has been worthwhile for both sides. Turkey has received €3 billion ($3.5 billion) to alleviate the burden of the more than €27 billion ($32 billion) it has spent on hosting over 3 million Syrian refugees. And the EU has seen refugee movements across the Aegean Sea dwindle to a trickle.
The risk, therefore, is not a breakdown of the EU-Turkey statement. Rather, it is a breakdown of the broader rules-based relationship—still anchored in the accession process, no matter how hollow this is—without another rules-based alternative, for instance a modernized customs union. Such a scenario would leave the purely transactional EU-Turkey migration statement as the only pillar of this strategic relationship.
Sinan Ülgen, Visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe
The March 2016 EU-Turkey refugee deal remains fragile. Very few of Ankara’s expectations have been fulfilled. Turkey is receiving its allocated financial aid to the tune of €3 billion ($3.5 billion) for helping the 3 million Syrian refugees now on its territory. But the remaining components of the deal—liberalizing visa arrangements for Turkish citizens traveling to the EU, deepening the EU-Turkey customs union, opening new chapters of Ankara’s EU accession process, and establishing regular EU-Turkey summits—have been elusive.
The current severe deterioration of Turkey’s bilateral diplomatic relations with key EU member states like Germany and the Netherlands, coupled with continued democratic backtracking at home, creates a difficult environment that can jeopardize the sustainability of the refugee deal. But at the same time, both Ankara and Brussels seem to operate on the assumption that a full collapse of the deal would be a mutual loss. Turkey would lose its EU financial aid, and the EU would face a renewed flow of illegal migrants across the Aegean Sea.
So ultimately, the deal remains in place essentially because both sides realize that its continuation is in their interests, despite increasingly acrimonious rhetoric. Yet this observation should not be construed as a strong rebuttal of the danger of a collapse. A further deterioration of the Turkey-EU relationship would inevitably impact the fate of the refugee agreement.
Pierre Vimont, Senior fellow at Carnegie Europe
The EU-Turkey migration agreement of March 2016 was perceived from the start as doomed. As confrontation grew between the two sides, it looked like the perfect victim of Turkish discontent. Yet so far nothing has happened, feeding the suspicion that Ankara may not have much leverage on this issue.
In fact, the 2016 agreement has reached its goals of effectively closing off the Western Balkan migration route and disrupting smugglers’ networks in Turkey. The deal has forced human traffickers to reshape their business model and turn to Libya as the main migration path to Europe. In addition, the pressure of Syrian and Iraqi refugees is decreasing as local ceasefires are gradually taking hold amid current hostilities. And in times of economic difficulties, Ankara cannot easily ignore the substantial EU financial assistance being provided to refugees in Turkey.
Finally, with its more than limited diplomatic options in the region and its uneasy partnerships with Washington and Moscow, Turkey has little interest in a definitive breakdown with Europe, which is what would happen if Ankara abandoned the migration deal. Verbal confrontation between the two sides will probably go on, but so—tacitly—could the 2016 agreement, as it works to the benefit of both.