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Opinion on the EU-Turkey deal

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The agreement between the European Union and Turkey can be considered an instance of pragmatism.1 For all its grandstanding on protecting human rights and guaranteeing the fundamental freedoms of refugees, the EU is not actually willing to commit to the rigours demanded by its own moral standard. It wants to do just enough to keep migratory pressures at a perceived level of sustainability in order to roll the problem—and its orderly solution—over to a future date, when conditions will hopefully be more favourable.

Official Europe’s predicament consists in the divide between its commitments on paper and the actuality of public opinion throughout its territory. This manifests as deep divisions inside the European Council, where the heads of state or government of the Member States meet to decide on the outlook of EU policy. Europe is not united on migration, neither with respect to the ultimate end nor as concerns the means to be employed. Based on their actions though, all EU governments tend to tacitly agree on the premise that there is a yet-to-be-quantified upper limit to the influx of newcomers to Europe they would be willing to tolerate.

The deal with Turkey is, in essence, an ad hoc plan aimed to offer immediate relief to a set of pressures that are expected to persist over the short-to-medium term. It does not suffice to address either (i) the causes of mass relocation in all of the countries of origin, or (ii) the design flaws in the EU’s institutional order that contribute to the crisis of collective action over the issues pertaining to migrants and refugees.2

What it does offer to the EU is to:

  • shift the locus of the problems from Greece to Turkey;
  • provide the foundations for the registration of Syrian refugees that can then be relocated in Europe—a [quasi] legal route to the EU;
  • undermine the business model of the smugglers’ network;
  • offer incentives to Turkey to comply with its commitments for gaining accession status to the EU;
  • buy time for European leaders to sort out their differences in opinion and to work on the ongoing legislation aimed at reforming the EU’s legal-institutional arrangements on the areas of policy concerning migration and asylum.

Managing Europe’s external border

Turkey may not appeal to every European as the ideal partner. Its record on fundamental freedoms is anything but impeccable, while its internal conflicts and the reaction to them seem to contribute to a growing sense of doubt over the integrity of its constitutional order. Still, Turkey provides the only realisable course of action under the circumstances.

A large number of the third country nationals that cross into European territory do so from Turkey. They enter into Greek space having navigated through a sea border that the government in Athens cannot fully control. Part of its ineffectiveness has to be attributed to the long standing disputes over sovereign authority in the Aegean Sea.

Greece and Turkey maintain an antagonistic stance towards each other, meaning that they do not have any sincere intention to cooperate on stamping out any illegal activity on their mutual border. With migratory flows set to remain at high levels, the problem inevitably spills over to Greece’s partners in the European Union as well as its neighbours to its north.

The EU does not have the prerogative to directly tackle the dossiers covered in Greece’s foreign policy. It can however find ways to circumvent whatever bilateral obstacles and obstinacies therein for the sake of promoting the general interests of the Union. Irregular migration, the inability of Greece to register all asylum applications, the unwillingness of neighbours to Greece to maintain an open and safe passage for refugees and to share the burden of adjustment, the ineffectiveness of plans to introduce country quotas on the relocation of refugees, the flaws of the Schengen Agreement especially as concerns the management of external borders, all force European leaders to adopt extraordinary measures.

The deal with Turkey may be treated as morally dubious, especially since it can be a case of effectively using refugees as items of trade. Objectionable as that may be, the whole package stands to deliver something that many Europeans would most likely prefer over the alternative of uncontrolled migration to Europe coupled with the inability of the EU to cope with the challenge under the prevailing conditions.

In short, this is a matter of balancing practicality with morality. In the view of the European Council, neat and simple solutions do not exist.

Restoring Schengen normality

The reintroduction of national borders in Europe constitutes a major backward trend in the integration process. The very essence of the EU is to create a space of fundamental freedoms that transcends the nation state in terms of its territorial scope. The intimately linked freedoms of movement and establishment can only be upheld if Europe functions without any permanent internal border controls. That is the primary objective of the Schengen Agreement, which establishes a passport-free zone mostly comprised of EU Member States.3

For the Schengen Area to work as intended, its external border has to be rendered ever more secure. As the EU does not yet have its own border and coast guard, this area of policy remains a national responsibility. But using national means as a pillar for Europe-wide stability has never delivered the desired results. There is a mismatch between the magnitude of the challenge and the capacity of a national government to deal with it. To put it in concrete terms, Greece and Italy cannot treat the migration flows to the EU as purely national issues. They do not have the resources, while migration is not limited to their borders. These are intrinsically transnational phenomena that require policies at the supranational level. No government can do this on its own.

The EU already has a plan to correct this disconnect on border issues and, hence, to save the Schengen Agreement from its demise. It concerns the creation of a European Border and Coast Guard Agency.4 The legislative process is underway and, if everything goes as planned, it will not be long before the EU gains shared competence on the matter: a degree of sovereignty over the management of external borders that is.

As things currently stand, the Schengen Agreement is falling apart. For normality to be restored, the external borders need to be reinforced and be treated for what they truly are: an EU-level responsibility. Until the Union has the required policy instruments to formulate a coherent agenda, it has to rely on such ad hoc measures as those envisaged in the deal with Turkey.

The Cyprus factor

While migration may have no direct connection to either Turkey’s accession to the EU or its stance vis-à-vis Cyprus, the fact is that this deal could never have completely disregarded that parameter. The Turkish government wants to reinvigorate its push for EU membership, while European leaders need to offer something in return other than the few billions of euro they have earmarked for spending in Turkey.

The government in Lefkosia (Nicosia) is blocking certain chapters in Turkey’s EU accession negotiations as it asserts that Ankara does not comply with its obligations towards Cyprus. Turkey does not recognise the Republic of Cyprus, due to historical reasons related to the Cyprus dispute. It considers it a defunct entity that has been de facto rendered void following the withdrawal of the Turkish-Cypriot community’s participation in the state’s structures.

Negotiations aimed at reaching a settlement between the Greek- and Turkish- Cypriots remain inconclusive. There are indications that a new agreement may be reached and a plan be ultimately put forward for popular approval. A solution to this persistent problem would, inter alia, foresee the orderly withdrawal of the Turkish military presence in Cyprus, and would make the government in Ankara recognise the new constitutional order as legitimate.

Cyprus could never afford to lose its bargaining power for the sake of accommodating the EU-Turkey deal. That could negatively impact the ongoing efforts to finally reach a settlement on the Cyprus dispute. On the other hand, the EU could not risk triggering a Cypriot veto that would jeopardise a strategically important deal with Turkey. It is for these reasons that the European Council avoided crossing the line drawn by the government in Lefkosia. To this end the opening of Chapter 33 of the acquis in the EU-Turkey accession talks has to be seen as a win for President Anastasiades for having avoided a direct confrontation with his EU partners and, conversely, for the EU as a whole for having achieved the progress it aimed for without further complicating things.5

Implementation is key

Whatever the merits of the EU-Turkey deal, it is the implementation of its provisions that will ultimately determine its relative success. In the meantime, the European Union succeeds in what it does best: do incremental steps towards a coherent position.

The building blocks of an EU-level solution are still not in place. Until those are introduced Europe will have to rely on purpose-specific arrangements such as the one with Turkey. Part of the normative aspects of migration and asylum have been set aside, so that a compromise agreement could be reached on the basis of what is feasible and expedient for all sides involved.

At any rate, the current package is limited in scope. The EU still needs to deepen its integration on central issues pertaining to migration and asylum. Doing so will enable it to preserve its current achievements, most notably the Schengen Agreement, and lay the foundations for an orderly response to the challenges posed by the global phenomenon of the mass relocation of populations caused by all sorts of calamities.

All of the above granted, perhaps it would also be prudent to slightly tone down the sort of rhetoric that exalts the much-vaunted “European values”. It has been made apparent that there are other priorities.

  1. EU-Turkey statement, 18 March 2016. Published in the official website of the European Council. [^]

  2. Can Europe cope with migration? Article published on February 28, 2016. [^]

  3. Schengen Area graph by the European Parliamentary Research Service. [^]

  4. First thoughts on the European Border and Coast Guard Agency. Article published on March 2, 2016. [^]

  5. Conditions for membership: Chapters of the acquis. The “acquis” is the acquired level of integration, the set of rules that already make up the EU. [^]