The provisional EU-Turkey deal agreed at last week’s summit may have brought the EU one step closer to beginning to manage the flow of arrivals through its south eastern borders. It also brought the EU a step closer to the UK’s vision of what a response to Europe’s refugee crisis should be.
UK asylum policy for the past decade has been centred around discouraging the ‘wrong sort of asylum seekers’ from coming. UK Home Secretary Theresa May’s philosophy is that those who travel to make a claim on UK soil should be discouraged in order to keep numbers of arrivals manageable, and to achieve this, the UK government should do everything in its power to make the overland and sea route to the UK undesirable – including harsh reception conditions, and strict rejections and returns of those who do not qualify under the UK’s rules.
The quid pro quo, the UK government has argued – including in discussions in the European Council since the European refugee crisis began to bite in spring 2015 – is that this way the UK can be more generous through resettlement – bringing pre-approved refugees directly from camps and crisis situations overseas. This, they argue, allows an element of control for the government – only those they know are genuine political refugees may come – and also allows a humane approach – the most needy can be prioritised rather than those most able – to make the journey. Except of course, with the number of resettlement places that the UK is offering so low (the current commitment to 20,000 Syrian refugees over 5 years means that the UK is offering to take in as many refugees a year as Greece receives in arrivals on certain days) this latter argument about the humanity of the UK policy doesn’t quite hold.
So in its focus on returns and resettlement, the ‘one in, one out’ policy that the EU adopted in the Turkey deal last week, and the reliance on strengthened partnerships with third countries to discourage arrivals, other EU leaders appear to have bought into the UK’s logic. The question over how to handle the stock of those who have already arrived in Greece and other EU states under extreme pressure still remains. The now infamous relocation deal of last autumn between member states is still implicit in the new agreement, but the UK has no answer on the intra-EU solidarity that would need to be found to handle this. Indeed, the UK has distanced itself entirely from any EU collective response on the refugee crisis since its April 2015 announcement that it would not take in the people who were arriving on the shores of Italy and Greece, and it reiterated this at the time of the relocation deal in October.
Still, the apparent acceptance of UK government’s logic on managing flows, combined with the timing of the EU-Turkey initiative, mean that the UK may prove a more supportive partner in this stepped up effort to tackle the refugee crisis than it has been heretofore. Now that the UK’s EU renegotiation deal has been sealed, it has fewer irons in the fire in EU level discussions, and its hands are perhaps a little freer to engage in negotiations of other sorts.
And over the last year of the refugee crisis, in its limited commentary on the issues, the UK has emphasised the importance of the foreign policy angle of the response (as opposed to the intra EU challenge) and of Turkey in particular. In November 2015, ahead of the last EU Turkey summit at which the first deal was agreed, the UK was reportedly one of the first in line to the European Commission to offer a financial contribution to the initial €3 billion aid package to Turkey.
In addition, Downing Street is keenly aware that as the warmer summer months approach the numbers of people making crossings to the EU by sea are only likely to increase again, potentially along new routes. The images of an EU overwhelmed by a crisis of any sort as the 23 June referendum approaches are unlikely to help them make the case that the UK has a more secure, more stable future inside the union. This provides an added urgency which may just incentivise the UK to step in in support of any deal that now looks likely to improve the picture, albeit in limited ways.
The major challenges around implementing the EU-Turkey deal – particularly UNHCR’s Filippo Grandi’s comments on the likely illegality of the agreement – have not escaped the debate in the UK but the government is unlikely to engage in any detailed defence of it at this delicate point in UK-EU politics. Rather, it might be expected to help where it can on the mechanics of making it work, and some scaling up of commitments on resettlement could form part of this. But before it will throw any weight behind it at all, the UK – like other member states – will want to be sure that this apparent step forward is the real deal, and at least weathers the likely attacks from France, Spain, Cyprus, Bulgaria and the Visegrad group at the EU summit this week.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.