The EU Turkey deal: fair and feasible?

Potentially unrealistic vows on readmissions and relocation leave plenty of questions unanswered ahead of EU Council

The outcome of the EU-Turkey summit on 7 March caught many by surprise and this week’s EU Council might surprise us again.

At stake is the general direction of the EU’s response to the refugee crisis. Gone are the days of the “refugee welcome” policy inaugurated by Angela Merkel last August. She herself started to change policy a few months ago. The prevailing line now is the result of the convergence between the countries of the Visegrad group and Western capitals such as Paris and London which, for different reasons, oppose an open door policy. Now the emphasis is on controlling the external borders, reducing as much as possible the numbers arriving in Europe and outsourcing as much as possible the burden of refugee reception to Turkey with a massive plan to return there the people who arrive in Greece. In a way, London’s ideological approach to asylum policy has won the day

Now the emphasis is on controlling the external borders, reducing as much as possible the numbers arriving in Europe and outsourcing as much as possible the burden

Convening the meeting on 7 March between the EU heads of government and the Turkish Prime Minister, the EU President Donald Tusk seemed to set the tone of the policy response to the refugee crisis that the agreement would express: the goal was to “end to the so-called wave-through policy of migrants” by reducing “the flow through large-scale and rapid return from Greece of all migrants not in need of international protection”.

Tusk declared explicitly that in this way the Balkan route would be closed. This reflected the decisions taken earlier by the summit between Austria, Germany and the Balkan countries which effectively brought the number of refugees moving northwards from Greece close to zero. As part of this strategy, Greece would receive 700 million euros spread over three years to deal with the humanitarian crisis created by the closure.

The agreement put on the table two big carrots for Turkey: the doubling of the funds available to manage the crisis internally (from €3 billion to €6 billion) and a commitment to implement visa liberalisation at the same time as the start of the implementation of the rest of the deal. By June, Turkey would have to clear dozens of legal benchmarks and overcome the distrust – to put it mildly – many EU member states, particularly France, have over liberalisation.

The problems with the “one in, one out” principle

These carrots were not the biggest surprise, although visa liberalisation is likely to come under fire on Thursday. As Tusk had vowed, the final statement of the summit did contain a pledge for massive readmissions from Greece to Turkey aiming “to return all irregular migrants crossing from Turkey into the Greek islands with the costs covered by the EU”.

In parallel with this programme of forced returns, Europe would resettle one refugee from Turkey for each repatriated migrant. This is the so-called “one in, one out” ratio which creates a perverse incentive for Turkey: having a few thousand refugees trying to illegally cross the Aegean, which would allow the resettlement of those already in Turkey. A rational system would work the opposite way and reduce to zero the illegal crossings by allowing and regulating legal arrivals in Europe through resettlement.

This is the so-called “one in, one out” ratio which creates a perverse incentive for Turkey: having a few thousand refugees trying to illegally cross the Aegean, which would allow the resettlement of those already in Turkey

Moreover, the system outlined on 7 March would kick off only in June when the agreement goes into effect. It is based on Tusk’s (and others’) mistaken assumption that current flows are composed of a high number of “irregular migrants” i.e. not refugees. Yet, the overwhelming majority of those arriving in Greece (more than 80 percent) come from refugee-producing countries. Under international and European law, they are entitled to apply for asylum in Greece and cannot be repatriated in Turkey unless they’ve lost also an appeal against the authorities. Greece still does not have a specific court of appeal for asylum applicants. At the moment, this would mean having courts and an asylum system capable of processing several thousand people every day.

The problem with declaring Turkey as a “safe third country”

For Greece to forcibly return all refugees back to Turkey, this would have to be declared as a “safe third country”. This has become common practice in the management of migration. But for this declaration to have effect under EU law, Turkey would have to apply the Geneva Convention to all nationalities and not just to EU citizens as it is now. Some experts argue that Turkey would be a “soft” safe third country, meaning that because of its failure to meet some benchmarks, forced returns would have to be examined on a case by case basis. For instance, given the conflict between Turkey and the Syrian Kurds, it would be highly problematic to forcibly return to Turkey a member of this minority.

Again, if this is the cornerstone of the EU’s new response to the crisis it is a rather fragile one: mass readmissions are not only legally questionable but require large resources to be implemented. They are unlikely to work as a deterrent as long as there are no legal pathways into Europe: people fleeing war would still try to get into Europe one way or another. Hence, Bulgaria’s fear of becoming the new transit country and Italy’s concern that the Balkan route might be diverted through Albania and the Adriatic.

From a man-made humanitarian catastrophe to a humanitarian and pragmatic response

The abrupt closure of the Balkan route has created a man-made humanitarian catastrophe in Greece where almost 40,000 refugees are stranded with more than a quarter of them in the camp at Idomeni. While aid to Greece has been promised in the next two years, the infrastructure to accommodate these people in a humane way should have been in place before the closure of the border, not just promised after. Anyone thinking that such catastrophe could discourage Syrians, Iraqis or Afghanis from coming to Europe should think twice: to compete with the humanitarian disasters from which they are fleeing sets the bar quite high.

Along with aid money, Greece has been promised a stepped up relocation system which would redistribute refugees to the rest of the EU (except for countries like the UK that have opted out). Yet, the failure of this system is one of the most common media stories of the past months: less than a thousand people relocated in eight months. The Commission’s promise to go up to 6,000 relocations per month sounds empty given the record and the political context in most of the EU. Should that ambitious goal be achieved, the current stock of refugees in Greece would need several months to be relocated. What happens in the meantime from a humanitarian standpoint is open to question. In the meantime, Greek and European resources are devoted to a programme that is unlikely to work. Moreover, relocation is based on the premise that people would have to risk their lives in the sea in order to apply for it.

These energies devoted to unrealistic vows on readmissions and relocation, would be better devoted to a plan for resettlement that aims to address the needs of several hundred thousand refugees not only in Turkey but also in other less solid countries in the region. This would allow for a shift from a system that strengthens smuggling to a managed and orderly process based on legal pathways to Europe. Illegal flows would shrink, allowing for the implementation of readmissions as well as the effective protection of borders that would no longer see the daily arrival of thousands of people.

Even though the general trend is toward the “pulling up the drawbridge and dump the burden” approach, there are some positive pegs that those advocating a more realistic and humane response can use: Merkel’s line has not been defeated in the state elections, France needs to get out of its isolation and London could be convinced to step up its commitment to resettlement.

Yet, leaders will eventually have to make a choice on the struggle to keep unity among the 28 and the need to devise a realistic response which is also ethically acceptable. Coalitions of the willing are possible outisde the articles of the EU treaties, and Europe has an opportunity at the end of this month to internationalise the resettlement programme in the Geneva conference for global responsibility sharing.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Senior Policy Fellow

Subscribe to our weekly newsletter

We will store your email address and gather analytics on how you interact with our mailings. You can unsubscribe or opt-out at any time. Find out more in our privacy notice.