Will the EU-Turkey Deal Work?
After long negotiations in Brussels, Turkey and the 28-member European Union (EU) have signed a deal on Syrian refugees that is both complex and controversial. The deal was inked at the EU headquarters on March 18, with the Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu beaming and his EU counterparts looking relieved, but far from beaming. Turkey has extracted a good deal for itself from the EU.
The EU found itself in a weak negotiating position, overwhelmed by the inundation of Syrian refugees coming from Turkey threatening its very foundations, the Schengen Agreement and much more. At the same time, it is difficult to dismiss the thought that the EU could have played a smarter game with its weak hand. While it is too soon to say whether the deal is going to work out to the satisfaction of its makers, primarily, President Erdogan of Turkey and Chancellor Merkel of Germany, there are serious flaws and none should be surprised if it falls through and seriously hurts the two principal deal-makers politically, Merkel much more than Erdogan, not to mention the mounting misery of the helpless human beings in question.
Before we look at the substance of the deal, let us see why and how Europe finds itself in a vulnerable situation. Was it possible for the EU to have handled the refugee crisis in a smarter way? Let us start with a thought experiment: EU has a population of 500 million. It decides to accept refugees from Syria and elsewhere up to 0.5 per cent of its population – 2.5 million – and decides to distribute them among its member states based on population, with the poorer states getting financial support from the EU based on an agreed formula. The EU, having accepted to take in 2.5 million, puts diplomatic pressure on the US, Canada, GCC and other Arab states to take care of the remaining refugees, if needed.
As it happened, when the flow of refugees from Syria sharply increased in 2015, only Germany, Austria, and Sweden came forward to accept them. The picture of a three-year-old Kurdish boy, Aylan Kurdi, whose body was washed up on the coast of Bodrun in Turkey splashed across the media on 3 September 2015 put pressure on some EU leaders to accept more refugees and to address the crisis on a war footing. Aylan’s father, Abdullah, had paid Euro 4000 for a flimsy boat, without lifeboats, that sank killing his wife and two sons including Aylan. According to Abdullah, the boat’s bottom had holes and, within 500 metres from the starting point, it started to collect water and nothing could have been done to prevent the sinking. They were on a 10 km journey to the Greek island of Lesbos.
Merkel went to the border with Hungary and welcomed the Syrian refugees who sang her praise. She announced what is known in Germany as willkommenspolitik(welcome policy) and was nominated as the Person of the Year for 2015 by Time magazine for her leading role in bringing out an agreement between Greece and EU on the debt owed by Greece and for welcoming refugees fleeing strife-torn Syria. Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Caliph of the Islamic State, was the runner up. The explanation is that the criterion is not the moral quality but the importance of the impact of the person. Merkel was a strong contender for the Nobel Peace Prize that ultimately went to Tunisia’s civil society.
Merkel negotiated the deal with Davotuglu and passed it on to EU, which obliged her by endorsing it. Essentially, the deal has four elements:
- Turkey will accept back any asylum seeker who comes to Greece from Turkey if Greece/EU after due process rejects the claim of asylum. In return, EU will accept another Syrian refugee in Turkey after due process. The intended message to the asylum seekers is that anyone who was deported to Turkey will not be accepted. The intention is to discourage asylum seekers from setting out on boats to Lesbos and Chios, the Greek islands close to Turkey.
- EU will process rapidly Turkey’s request for visa-free entry into the Schengen area for a positive decision by the end of June 2016. Turkey has already fulfilled 35 out of the 72 requirements and once all the requirements are completed the EU Parliament will be asked to enact the necessary legislation.
- Turkey will receive a total of Euro 6 billion by 2018 to spend on Syrian refugees in its own territory. Turkey will let Syrians take up employment or start businesses.
- EU will exert itself to facilitate Turkey’s admission to EU as early as feasible.
Amnesty International and other Human Rights bodies have already criticised the deal. The crux of the criticism is that the EU has no business to send back asylum seekers to Turkey since it is not a safe country. Turkey has not signed up in full to the UN Convention on refugees and it has, in violation of international law, sent back to Syria a number of Syrians. It is reasonably clear that Turkey does not qualify to be considered as a safe country where the refugees can get the protection they are entitled to under international law. Equally, it is clear that EU, which has been till recently exhorting Turkey to improve its human rights record, has been blackmailed by Erdogan into dealing with him even as he methodically moves his country away from democracy.
The moral bankruptcy as well as the legal flaw of the deal is as clear as daylight. Let us examine the deal from a practical point of view. 1600 Syrians have reached Lesbos and Chios within 36 hours of the coming into force of the agreement. Turkey has prevented 200 from sailing. 10 Turkish monitors have reached Lesbos and some Greeks are upset over the presence of these Turks in the island. EU had promised to send 2500 or 4000 (both figures have been mentioned in reports) officials including interpreters to Lesbos/Chios to examine and decide on the claims for asylum. The officials are not yet in place. If the claim for asylum is rejected, there is scope for an appeal and the intention is to dispose off the appeal fast and send back to Greece, if possible, everyone who came in after 20 March.
Suppose the asylum seekers refuse to go back and start a hunger strike? What will EU do? Use force? Obviously, there is scope for ugly scenes with all the attendant consequences.
There is another practical consideration. If the Lesbos/Chios route is closed, the asylum seekers will seek other routes, say from Libya to Italy. Will EU replicate the deal to take care of the flood of refugees into Italy? Will the deal be with Libya that has two governments and two parliaments, or with Turkey once again?
The only effective way to stop the flow of refugees is for Turkey to confiscate all boats or use brute force to prevent Syrians from going to the coast. Perhaps, Turkey might do that after a while after extracting more concessions from EU, perhaps secretly. The question is whether Turkey is entitled to prevent refugees from leaving its territory by using force? Does international law give Turkey the authority to do that? What will be the impact on public opinion in Europe if European media carry the story? One might assume that Erdogan might succeed in silencing the Turkish media by intimidation.
Let us look at the project for visa-free entry into the Schengen area for Turkish passport holders. As Erdogan’s harsh measures on Kurds get harsher, a large number of Kurds might come to Germany and try to settle down. Some German political leaders have already given vent to their concerns in this regard. Since the project requires approval by the European Parliament, will it approve it or place conditions on Erdogan to stop the violation of human rights of the Kurds and the shutting down of newspapers? How will he react to such an admonishment?
As regards Turkey’s admission into EU, there is strong opposition among Europeans to taking that country in. Should the admission of Turkey require approval through referendum, will all the 28 member states, including Cyprus, approve it? Turkey accepted associate membership of the European Economic Community in 1959 since it was not going to get full membership. In 1987 it applied for membership and the EU took 12 years to recognise Turkey as a candidate. Negotiations have been going on at a pace that will put a snail to shame and only one of the 35 chapters has been closed. EC President Jean-Claude Juncker affirmed before his election that Turkey would not be admitted under his presidency. He reiterated his position after his election. Merkel herself has been arguing against full membership and offering only privileged partnership. In June 2013, Germany asked, and the EU agreed, to put off talks with Turkey by four months. All told, Turkey is unlikely to get membership in the foreseeable future.
Another important matter to bear in mind is that Merkel, 61, in office for ten years, has peaked and her popular support has started falling. In the recent state elections in Baden-Wurttemberg, Saxony-Anhalt, and Rhineland Palatinate, a new party named ‘Alternative for Germany’ got 1.3 million votes on an anti-Merkel platform. Merkel’s Bavarian partner CDU (Christian Democratic Union) has openly criticised her. If Merkel loses political ground in Germany her position as the most powerful person in EU will change.
Meanwhile, Erdogan has not stopped lambasting the EU. He said on 22 March, “This EU has officially designated the PKK (Syrian Workers Party) as terror organization. So how come it allows this terror organization to erect tents and raise flags. Is this sincerity? Is this honesty? The EU, which has made Turkey wait at its door since 1963, still continues its hypocrisy today.” He has vowed to continue voicing his criticisms if this situation persists.
In short, the Merkel-Erdogan deal might prove to be unimplementable and its moral bankruptcy and legal imperfections cannot be denied. If the deal falls through, serious consequences will follow not only for the two leaders, but also for the millions of human beings unfortunate enough to be born under the Syrian sky. German critics of Merkel might be reminded of the disastrous deal between Dr. Faustus and Mephistopheles in the work of Germany’s most famous writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.