BACKGROUND: After much horse-trading, the European Union and the Turkish government reached a readmission agreement regarding the refugee crisis on the 17-18 March 2016 summit in Brussels. Formally, the so-called one-for-one deal means that all refugees arriving in Greece from March 20, 2016 onwards will be sent back to Turkey. For every Syrian refugee the EU returns, a Syrian living in Turkish camps will be given a new home in Europe. In return, Turkish citizens will get visa-free travel to Schengen Area and Turkey’s EU membership talks will get re-energized, with the promise of negotiations on a new “chapter” to be opened before July 2016. The EU has also promised to speed up the payment of €3bn intended to fund Syrians and host communities in Turkey, with further €3bn to be allocated by 2018.
However, the facade of win-win rhetoric, smiling faces and embraces of EU Council President Donald Tusk and Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu notwithstanding, the deal is in fact a lose-lose game for both sides. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is right to note that the deal has triggered ‘an irreversible momentum’ but a close look seems to reveal it as a momentum towards a much worse future for all parties involved.
For Turkey, the loss is quite imminent and substantial; so much so that even the government of Justice and Development Party (AKP), which is otherwise served by an impressive arsenal of public relations machinery, is having a hard time marketing the silver-lining in the deal. Indeed, the deal falls far short of establishing a fair burden-sharing in hosting refugees, financing or offering alternative compensations to Turkey.
Turkey is currently the largest refugee-hosting country in the world, with almost three million in total. It is also a significant transit country: In the course of past fifteen months, about a million refugees came – via the Aegean Sea – from Turkey into Greece. It is this particular route the deal targets to block and, for this aim, it caps the number of Syrians who can be re-housed in Europe from the camps in Turkey as part of the one-for-one principle at 72,000 a year. This is to say, if it is supposed that the number of refugees attempting to cross the Aegean in the coming year remains more or less the same as during the past year, about one in every ten would be relocated in Europe while the remaining nine stay in Turkey. This, in turn, means that, barring a radical change in the situation in Syria that would put an end to current migration flow and turn it back into a “safe country of origin” in international legal standards, Turkey is expected to handle hundreds of thousands more refugees in the coming year alone, while the EU readmits a maximum of 72,000.
Neither does the deal offer a fair burden-sharing between the parties financially. In order to reduce the “push” factor for migration of Syrians towards Europe, the EU promises €6bn until the end of 2018. On those millions of Syrians who are already in the country, Turkey has spent $10bn within the past four years. At the peak of negotiations with EU leaders, Prime Minister Davutoğlu even quoted a staggering $35bn figure as the total sum Turkey spent on all Syrians, both in and out of the camps. In any case, the real cost to Turkey is significantly higher than what the deal promises will be allocated in the coming three years, when the overall number of refugees in Turkey is expected to increase significantly.
IMPLICATIONS: Regarding the political compensations offered to Turkey in return, things remain almost exactly as they were before the deal. The agreement makes little more than just restating that Turkish government’s bid to visa-free travel to Schengen area is conditional on the fulfillment of all the remaining 46 benchmarks (out of 72 in total), including those changes required on grand issues like the recognition of the Cypriot government, the amendments of the laws on anti-corruption, anti-discrimination, judicial freedom, the law on terrorism and the legal status of migrants in Turkey. Even in the unlikely case that Turkey miraculously fulfills all of these requirements in the coming few months, this would only lead to a suggestion by the European Commission to lift the visa requirement for Turkish citizens, which would have to be approved by the European parliament.
Considering Turkey’s exceptionally poor record in the protection of fundamental rights and freedoms of both its own citizens and migrants in past years, a sanctimonious effort on Ankara’s part, limited only to the amendment of related legislations on paper, would likely fail to convince those European leaders who have already voiced serious criticisms on the deal, branding it as an immoral pact with a highly questionable partner.
The deal does not really seem to re-energize the frozen membership negotiations between EU and Turkey either. As part of the deal, Turkey expected the opening of six of the most controversial chapters that had been blocked by Cyprus and eventually brought the negotiations to a complete halt. Yet those chapters still remain blocked and the so-called 33rd chapter, previously blocked by France, has been opened instead.
Nonetheless, despite all of its shortcomings, the deal seems to have one major silver-lining for the Turkish government and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan: securing the tacit compliance of Europe in the face of Turkey’s ever more drastic slide down to authoritarianism under one-man rule.
EU Council President Tusk had an optimistic meeting with Erdoğan on the same day the Turkish state seized a media group over “terrorism” charges, alongside with its flagship daily Zaman, the country’s largest-selling newspaper. Two days before the Brussels meetings, Erdoğan labelled 1,128 academics who had signed a petition calling for a return to peace negotiations with Kurdish forces as “unarmed terrorists”, using their work and pen as weapons. More than four hundred of these academics are currently under investigation; thirty have been dismissed, twenty-seven have been suspended and three of them have been incarcerated. The ink was barely dry on the agreement between EU and Turkey when the Turkish President defiantly declared: ‘Democracy, freedom and the rule of law…For us, these words have absolutely no value any longer’ – an unambiguous rebuttal of the fundamental values that the EU wants to embody.
The loss for Brussels, then, is not immediately visible but nonetheless quite substantial. Cutting a deal with a partner so defiantly opposed to what the EU purports to be standing for further tarnishes its already diminished status as a normative power, arguably the strongest pillar on which the idea of a unified Europe stands.
In the face of Turkish government’s ever more increasing disrespect for basic freedoms, lack of respect for the rule of law, complete eradication of the principle of separation of power and criminalization of dissent in any and all form, the argument – repeatedly made by EU representatives that the Turkish government is a legitimate partner since it is elected by almost half of the electorate – amounts to a pitiful response on the EU’s part. It gives the signal that the EU’s normative rhetoric is just that, rhetoric – which can be dismissed when inconvenient, with no repercussions whatsoever. Because how else should one could grasp the statement by the President of the European Parliament Martin Schulz’s that the deal ‘does not mean that in return for Turkey's help we are prepared to sacrifice our values’?
The deal with Turkey does not stop at undermining the Europe’s normative power; it also blatantly violates the EU’s own legislation. Under the Asylum Procedures Directive, for the EU to legally reject and return asylum-seekers to Turkey on the grounds that their applications are inadmissible, Turkey has to be recognized either as a safe third country where the Syrians could have applied for protection or a first country of asylum where they already had protection. In both cases, the bare minimum requirements are that the applicant is recognized as a refugee in that country and benefits from the principle of non-refoulement (non-return to an unsafe country).
As examined in detail in a recent AIDA report, Turkey maintains a geographical limitation for non-European asylum-seekers and therefore does not recognize Syrians as refugees in international legal terms but as temporarily protected ones, with limited rights and no access to refugee protection in its full sense, as preserved in the Geneva Convention. In fact, it is difficult to speak of any “rights” Syrians have under Turkey’s Temporary Protection Regime – only certain “benefits”, for the continuation or termination of the regime is entirely within the discretion of the government. There are also several reports by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and BBC News on Syrians in Turkey being subject to arbitrary detentions and physical violence, as well as deportation or push-back to south of the border, indicating that Turkish government does not feel bound by the principle of non-refoulement.
CONCLUSIONS: Perhaps the hypocrisy of EU-Turkey deal and both parties’ lack of concern for the lives of millions is revealed most clearly in the leaked minutes of a meeting held between EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and Preisdent Erdoğan at the G-20 summit in Turkey in October 2015, which paved the way for the agreement. These reveal a horse-trade over €3bn per year, with Syrians being hostages who – in the words of Erdoğan – can be “put on buses” to Europe, “let drown” on the shores of Turkey in thousands or just “get killed” straightaway in case the desired terms are not fulfilled.
The deal is a “win-win” agreement, in the sense that the Turkish government earns the silence of its European critics as the country proceeds towards complete authoritarianism and the EU leaders get to have their cake and eat it too, outsourcing gate-keeping while maintaining the moral upper-hand. However, this is a joint “achievement” gained at the expense of not only the millions of Syrians whose prospects in Turkey consist little more than misery, abuse and exploitation, but also at the expense of at least half of the citizenry in Turkey that is condemned to an authoritarian regime. It is also a snub at those European idealists who remain attached to a set of ideals and values that were given short shrift when the European Union cut its deal with Turkey.
Halil Gürhanlı is a Doctoral Researcher/Part-time Lecturer at the Department of Political & Economic Studies, University of Helsinki, Finland
Image attribution: www.neurope.eu, accessed on April 7, 2016