View from London: Leading on foreign responses

London has steered clear of internal EU divisions over burden sharing, but is willing to engage externally on refugee crisis

From the comfortable distance of its island location, the UK has always been more willing to engage on the external part of the EU’s response to the refugee crisis than on burden sharing on managing the arrivals in Europe. At a roundtable on this issue at ECFR London last week, attended by the UK and Dutch migration envoys from their respective ministries of foreign affairs, an ‘update’ of the EU Turkey relationship was clearly seen at front and centre of this external response.

The UK sees co-operation with Turkey as a lynchpin (along with supporting Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq as other major host countries in the region, diplomatic engagement on conflict resolution in Syria, tackling instability emanating from the conflict in Libya, and development interventions to spread stability through the Horn and Sub-Saharan Africa) in the broader management of migratory flows towards Europe. The UK was true to this vision in the preparations for the EU Turkey summit this weekend, making a significant contribution of around €400 million to the €3 billion financial package offered by the EU to Turkey.

The deal has hailed in the UK as a breakthrough with strong potential to begin to tackle future flows into Europe. Indeed a number of the principles of the package that Turkey accepted – externalising policing of the borders; enabling return of economic migrants; aid to incentivise potential arrivals in Europe to stay where they are and not make the journey – are familiar from the UK’s approach to managing migration over recent decades. 

But like in other EU states, there is a nervousness in the UK about whether we can really ensure that Turkey delivers on its side of the deal – and doesn’t just take the money and carry on as before.  Europe finds itself very much in the role of demandeur on handling refugee flows – reliant on countries around its external borders to help it manage a border that it is itself struggling with.

Aside from the €3 billion aid package (which Turkey views as a first payment with more to come), the EU side of the deal was an as yet unspecific offer to take some refugees from Turkey to EU states through a resettlement programme, a promise on visa liberalisation that looks difficult to deliver in the current political environment in Europe, and a commitment to reenergise Turkey’s accession discussions.

Even if the EU manages to make the first three parts stick, there is a real credibility question over whether the EU can really deliver on accession.  All the blockages that were there in the discussions before refugee numbers travelling towards Europe surged this year – over Cyprus, Turkey’s backsliding on human rights – are still there and will not simply melt away in the warmth of the goodwill at the summit.

Diplomatically the UK is supportive of keeping the accession process alive, while being realistic about the current operating environment. Part of a wider engagement with Turkey might be developing a wider debate on the different kinds of EU membership which might apply to Turkey – or indeed to the UK – in the future. But though the EU Turkey summit exposed the hard reality of what Europeans need from Turkey on the refugee crisis, the implementation of the deal may suffer from excessive idealism about what the current European Union can deliver in return.

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


Senior Director for Strategy and Transformation
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.