Migrant Deal ‘Reengages’ Turkey with the European Union

Refugee children are seen at a makeshift camp at the Greek-Macedonian border near the village of Idomeni, Greece, on March 17. (Reuters/Alkis Konstantinidis)

The deal reached on March 18 to address Europe’s migrant crisis “reengages” Turkey with the European Union, but is a “questionable deal” for Europe, said the Atlantic Council’s Fran Burwell.

“Even more important than the specifics of the negotiation, this deal reengages Turkey with Europe, taking the relationship out of the deep freeze where it had been,” said Burwell, Vice President of the Atlantic Council’s European Union and Special Initiatives.

“Turkey is acknowledged as important in Europe, and some of its most recent questionable acts, such as the takeover of Zaman [newspaper], have been largely ignored by European leaders,” she added.

Under the deal, all migrants who attempt to enter Europe via the Aegean Sea after March 20 will be sent back to Turkey. In a “one-to-one” swap, Europe will take in one Syrian from a Turkish refugee camp for every Syrian returned from Greece. That number, however, has been capped at 72,000. Turkey, meanwhile, already hosts close to three million Syrian refugees.

The EU agreed to speed up the delivery of a pledged $3.3 billion in aid to help Turkey host the migrants, and double this amount by 2018.

Not all of Turkey’s demands were met.

Turkey had asked for five chapters of the EU accession talks to be opened, but the EU only agreed to open one—on budget and financial issues. It also sought visa-free travel for its citizens in Europe. The EU, instead, agreed to speed up its examination of whether Turkey is meeting all the requirements to qualify for visa liberalization. By June, the EU may allow visa-free travel for Turks traveling through the Schengen zone.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the deal would “end the business model” of human traffickers. But with the Aegean route now sealed shut, it is likely that traffickers will simply switch to the smuggling route that passes through Libya and north, across the Mediterranean, to Italy.

Kate Allen, Director of Amnesty International UK, responded to news of the deal saying it was a “dark day for Europe and a dark day for humanity.” The United Nations’ Refugee Agency, UNHCR, said earlier that the transfer of people from Europe back to Turkey amounted to a violation of human rights. Moreover, Greece is overwhelmed by asylum requests, which has led to serious questions about whether migrants will be returned to Turkey without a fair decision regarding their requests.

“There is a huge question about whether this deal can be implemented,” said Burwell. “Will Turkey be able to stop refugees leaving in a safe and humane way? Will the Turkish authorities be able to rein in the people smugglers who profit from the current arrangement? Also, this deal seems only to address Syrian refugees, what will happen to the Afghans and Iraqis who have arrived in Europe?”

Fran Burwell discussed the migrant deal and its implications in an interview with the New Atlanticist’s Ashish Kumar Sen. Here are excerpts from our interview.

Q: Did the EU accept all of Turkey’s demands?

Burwell: Turkey got a lot, but not everything it wanted. It did get a doubling of the financial assistance (from 3 to 6 billion euros), a promise of visa liberalization for its citizens so they can visit the EU temporarily without a visa, and the opening of a chapter in Turkey’s frozen EU accession talks. But it did not get five chapters opened as asked, because of Nicosia’s objections. And it was made clear that Turkey will still have to meet the required conditions for visa liberalization to happen—this will be extremely difficult. These are both technical requirements (biometric passports, for example) and political [requirements], such as revising its anti-terrorism legislation. 

Q: What are the implications of this deal for Turkey’s relationship with the European Union?

Burwell: Even more important than the specifics of the negotiation, this deal reengages Turkey with Europe, taking the relationship out of the deep freeze where it had been. Turkey is acknowledged as important in Europe, and some of its most recent questionable acts, such as the takeover of Zaman, have been largely ignored by European leaders.

Q: Given the authoritarian turn in Turkey, is this a bad deal for Europe?

Burwell: It is a questionable deal for Europe. There is no doubt that the deal will help [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan domestically, boosting his credibility and legitimacy. Europe has disregarded its values to some degree in making this deal, although that is certainly not unusual in politics. But there is a huge question about whether this deal can be implemented. Will Turkey be able to stop refugees leaving in a safe and humane way? Will the Turkish authorities be able to rein in the people smugglers who profit from the current arrangement? Also, this deal seems only to address Syrian refugees, what will happen to the Afghans and Iraqis who have arrived in Europe?

Q: Does the agreement address concerns about the possible violations of international law on refugees?

Burwell: There is an attempt to do so, by pledging that everyone will have their asylum application reviewed before being shipped back to Turkey. This will be an enormous burden, and it is expected that dozens of judges and other legal personnel will have to be deployed to Greece. There is much disagreement within Europe about whether Turkey is a safe country of return for all refugees. We can certainly expect the agreement to be challenged in court.

Q: While this deal addresses the route between Turkey and Greece it doesn’t do anything about the route from Libya, across the Mediterranean, and north to Italy. Do you expect the Libyan route to now become the favored one for human traffickers?

Burwell: The Libyan one is far more difficult and dangerous, so it will not become as prominent, although as summer approaches, there will certainly be an increase in those using it. And its popularity will also depend on what happens in Libya, whether the situation there stabilizes. But as Europe hardens its external borders and ships more migrants home, the incentives for individuals to try to reach Europe may dwindle, leading fewer to risk their lives.

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