March 9, 2016
A preliminary deal struck between the European Union and Turkey to shut Europe’s backdoor to migrants fleeing across the Aegean Sea could likely crumble under the burden of Turkey’s demands, said the Atlantic Council’s Fran Burwell.

“There are a whole bunch of questions about this deal and I would not be surprised to see it change again or perhaps even fall apart at the next meeting,” said Burwell, Vice President of the European Union and Special Initiatives at the Atlantic Council.

Under the terms of the deal, which European leaders hope to finalize ahead of a March 17-18 summit in Brussels, Turkey will take back all new migrants who illegally enter Greece from Turkey. In a “one-to-one” swap, Europe will take in one Syrian from a Turkish refugee camp for every Syrian returned from Greece. There are close to three million Syrians already in Turkey.

Turkey has demanded that the European Union double the $3.3 billion in aid already pledged to help it take care of the migrants, allow Turkish citizens visa-free travel in Europe, and speed up Turkey’s long-stalled EU accession process.

The deal reached this week raises multiple questions, including whether the “one-to-one” plan violates international law. The European Convention of Human Rights prohibits the collective expulsion of foreigners, such as that envisaged under the proposed EU-Turkey deal.

Moreover, under the 1951 Geneva Convention, only migrants from European countries can be entitled to refugee status in Turkey. Migrants from other countries can receive a “temporary protection” status.

Filippo Grandi, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, said he was “deeply concerned about any arrangement that would involve the blanket return of anyone from one country to another without spelling out the refugee protection safeguards under international law.”

Meanwhile, four nations along the Balkan route favored by migrants—Macedonia, Serbia, Slovenia, and Croatia—have barred all migrants without European visas.

The EU-Turkey deal also raises the question of whether the EU, in its desperation to address the migrant crisis, is turning a blind eye to what critics have said is rising authoritarianism in Turkey. In a striking example of this trend, the Turkish government took over an independent newspaper, Zaman, last week.

“If it were not for the migrant crisis, I don’t think the EU would be reaching out to Turkey in any significant way,” said Burwell.

“Turkey realizes that it has a great deal of leverage and it is using it,” she added.

Fran Burwell spoke in an interview with the New Atlanticist’s Ashish Kumar Sen. Here are excerpts from our interview.

Q: Europe has struggled to deal with the migrant crisis. Is this deal a game changer?

Burwell: That is very unclear. The deal, the major part of it, is about a swap. Turkey will take back all of the illegal immigrants who are crossing the water to Greece and in return for every Syrian that is returned to Turkey a Syrian will be allowed to emigrate from the refugee camps in Turkey to Europe after they go through a security screening.

In theory, this should reduce if not eliminate the incentive to get on boats. But it is unclear that this is actually legal under international law, which requires that refugees or those who claim to be refugees be given an opportunity to show that they would be persecuted if they are returned home. European countries, when they receive refugees, are obligated to go through that process to some degree. So that will complicate the deal.

Other elements of the deal, such as visa-free travel for Turks in the EU as of June, are likely to meet with political opposition in Europe. It is also not clear how Syrian refugees brought into Europe from Turkish camps will be distributed. That brings us right back to the failure of Europe to set up an effective reallocation program.

There also is the issue of Turkey’s EU membership and opening the chapters [on accession]. This is really a very difficult issue even though everyone understands that even if new chapters are opened, Turkey would still be years from actual membership. But particularly coming on the heels of the government shutdown of the independent newspaper Zaman last week, this is perhaps not the best moment to move forward with Turkey’s accession process.

There are a whole bunch of questions about this deal and I would not be surprised to see it change again or perhaps even fall apart at the next meeting.

Q: German Chancellor Angela Merkel forced through the “one-to-one” language. What does this deal mean for her domestically where we have seen a growing opposition from Germans to the migrants?

Burwell: If I were to guess, I would think that she was betting that it would make people understand that it would reduce and slow the flow of people who are coming. After all, it’s about fifty percent of the current refugee flow who are Syrians. So, in theory, if you return everybody and only bring Syrians back you are cutting the flow by fifty percent.

That is a kind of complicated calculation for the average person on the street who simply doesn’t want to have any more refugees. Merkel is facing three state elections this weekend, so a cynical approach might be that she has an agreement right now and it looks like it could reorient the refugee flow significantly, if it works. It could work, but that decision will be made next week after the elections in the länders (states).

Q: What is the likelihood that EU countries will declare Turkey a “safe country of asylum” to enable the return of Syrian refugees to Turkey?

Burwell: That is likely, assuming that there are no additional mass violations of human rights in Turkey. Turkey has jailed a large number of journalists. There are, as the EU has noted many times in its progress reports on Turkey, serious problems with the Turkish judiciary. Those are things that indicate that Turkey is not perfect, but it is not as though Turkey is a country where there is open conflict. It is not as bad as Syria, for example. Turkey is facing a serious terrorist threat and so sometimes there are security measures taken that are not what one would ideally like to see.

Q: Is the determination on whether Turkey is a “safe country of asylum” made by countries individually or collectively by the EU?

Burwell: So far they have done it individually. There is a discussion underway in the EU about identifying, as a group, the same countries as part of an effort to make their asylum policies more compatible. The ones that are mostly being focused on is for everyone to declare Albania and Kosovo safe.

Q: Has the EU’s relationship with Turkey become transactional rather than about nudging Turkey toward becoming a liberal democracy?

Burwell: If it were not for the migrant crisis, I don’t think the EU would be reaching out to Turkey in any significant way. Turkey realizes that it has a great deal of leverage and it is using it. It showed up in Brussels and demanded double the money—from three billion euros to another three billion. They have been demanding a lot for this deal.

Q: In its desperation to find a deal on the migrants, is the EU turning a blind eye to violations in Turkey? Does this deal, as some critics contend, strengthen Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s authoritarian rule?

Burwell: Leaders in the EU are very well aware of the deterioration in human rights and democratic governance in Turkey. In a statement from the meeting this week they did point out that they discussed freedom of the media with [Turkish] Prime Minister [Ahmet] Davutoğlu, but they are downplaying it to get this accord.

Ashish Kumar Sen is a staff writer at the Atlantic Council.