Refugee deal the only bond left between Turkey, EU
A Turkish-EU refugee deal reached last March is a success despite certain setbacks, according to Erkut Emcioğlu of the European Stability Initiative, a think tank based in Berlin.
The stalemate in the deal can be unlocked with a new road map, said Emcioğlu, adding that both Turkey and the EU had an interest in maintaining the refugee deal, as it is also the only point of dialogue left between the two sides.
What is your view on the implementation of the deal?
The deal has had a dramatic effect on movement in the eastern Mediterranean. The number of arrivals on the Greek islands in the first three months of 2016, before the deal, was around 150,000. After the deal, it fell to 20,000 [the total for the rest of the year].
The number of people who died while crossing fell from 366 [in the first three months], to 68 in the last nine months, which is one fifth. So when you look at those numbers, there is success.
There are some points where the deal was not fully implemented. I would not call them failures, but let’s say call it a lack of political will to implement [the deal]. For instance The EU committed to take many more refugees directly from Turkey.
Until now, the number of returns from Greece to Turkey is 915 as of March 15. The number of people resettled from Turkey to the EU is 3,800.
Some countries like Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden did not implement the voluntary resettlement scheme, most probably because of their electoral campaigns.
The second point is granting visa travel to Turks. Turkey strongly expected to get that in 2016, but the EU did not deliver on this point. The link between the anti-terror law modification and visa liberalization in our view should be replaced with another human rights condition: a zero tolerance to torture policy in any jail in the country. Europe fears that once visa free travel is granted, huge numbers of Turks could apply for asylum if there are human rights violations.
Turkey needs to improve human rights conditions and has to provide guarantees that torture will not be brought back.
I think both sides need a modified road map which links visa liberalization not to anti-terror modifications or these kind of topics which the government is very sensitive, but a topic the government has a commitment to. Turkey put its signature to the conventions to prevent torture: So it needs to implement this commitment.
But Europeans are asking for a change to the anti-terror law basically because of their concerns in terms of human rights violations that might occur if there is no change to the law.
I see the point, but we are trying to find a way to unlock the stalemate. The stance of Turkey is very clear: they will not change the law when there is terror in the country.
But the treatment in prisons and the treatment in custody can be improved, and improvements on these points should be enough for Europeans to grant visa-free travel.
The developments after the failed July 15, 2016, coup might have further complicated the developments, but do you think there was ever a possibility for the EU to give the green light for visa liberalization? Some never believed that Europe would give its consent and that they would instead find some reason not to grant it.
I sincerely thought that it would have happened. There is a very simple reason: we looked at the European Commission report [on visa liberalization], and we saw that it said positive things and we looked at the European Council and we made a calculation: 255 votes out of the total 345 votes and a simple majority of the states to have what we call a qualified majority. The calculation we made and the information we got from some the government showed us that this was possible; it was not an illusion.
It is still not an illusion, despite what has been happening with the Netherlands and Germany. We still think that those countries are the only mainstream ones who can have productive dialogue on this issue with Turkey. Turkey cannot count on [Victor] Orban’s Hungary or Poland. Turkey cannot count on those extreme-right governments; it can count on countries like Sweden, Germany and the Netherlands. These are countries still looking for dialogue with Turkey.
Do you think Turkey sees an interest in having a dialogue with Europe to keep this deal working?
That is the only point on which Turkey can have dialogue with Europe. And that’s why we believe that Turkey has plenty of interest to keep the deal.
First of all, Turkey has an economic interest. Out of the 3 billion euros promised for Syrians in Turkey, 700 million euros have come, which is being spent. This is not something to ignore. Turkey is already hosting Syrians and spending a lot of money.
Second, Turkey has a humanitarian interest in not turning the Aegean into a cemetery again. Turkey patrols the Aegean Sea, catches people in the boats and saves them, and we don’t want to see another Alan [Kurdi, a 3-year-old Syrian boy who washed up on a Turkish beach].
Third: stability. What happens if the deal is revoked? Greece will have a huge number of people coming to its islands.
Some are saying the Balkan route is closed and migrants have found other ways and argue that Turkey is bluffing.
But even with the presence of the deal, we have at least 50 crossings every day to Greece. How can others argue that there won’t be crossings? In 2015, there were 856,723 illegal border crossings to Greece; this dropped to 173,447 in 2016. What can stop people from crossing if there is no deal?
So stability in the region will be affected. Economically, Greece will be in huge difficulty.
The camps have a limited capacity. They are not able to process asylum requests on time. They are not able to cope with the existing refugees currently; how would they cope if the deal was to collapse?
This is an important danger not only for Greece but for asylum seekers, too. They are stuck on the islands; human rights organizations keep criticizing their conditions.
As ESI, we asked that more personnel from the EU be sent to Greece so the processes could be accelerated: grant them asylum and if not, return them to Turkey, where they can be protected under the temporary protection system.
Human rights organizations are critical, arguing Turkey should not be considered a safe third country.
Obviously Turkey needs to do more to be more transparent on the issue of returnees.
We don’t know what happens in the readmission camps; it is difficult to enter them; Turkish authorities say they are following some procedures but checking these procedures is not allowed.
So you think the deal will survive?
There is no alternative. What is the alternative? What will happen in the event that it collapses?
Turkish government officials have been proposing to suspend it or review it. Do you think Ankara will take that step?
We cannot guess the moves of the government in Ankara. But there is a crucial interest for the Turkish side to keep the deal working.
But do you see the chance for the deal to keep working when relations between the EU and Turkey go sour?
This is exactly our point: things are going bad in so many ways that it is the only point where Turkey and EU have dialogue. We are not talking about the accession talks, we are not talking about opening chapters, we are not talking about defense cooperation. We are talking about a humanitarian issue which is to the interest of both sides.
And if the deal were to collapse, then those who say Turkey is not a reliable partner will be proven right.
Turkey has delivered on its part, but looking to Europe, it appears even more difficult for Europeans to deliver on visa liberalization with the Donald Trump effect on immigration and the rise of anti-immigrant sentiments on the continent.
The European Commission said, “Yes, let’s do it” and then it came to a point where out of 73 criteria to be fulfilled, three were not fulfilled, and Turkey said it wouldn’t fulfill them. Looking from that perspective, is it Europe which did not deliver or is it Turkey? How does it look? As ESI, we say Turkey has grounds to say I cannot deliver on those criteria [changing the anti-terror law]. Then let’s change the criteria. Let’s find a way out.
Who is Fikret Erkut Emcioğlu?
Born in Istanbul in 1974, Fikret Erkut Emcioğlu double-majored in law and political sciences at the University of Strasbourg III. In 1998, he received a master’s degree at the University of Paris II. He spent seven years as a journalist and narrator at the Turkish Language Department at Radio France Internationale (RFI).
Since 2004, he has carried out research on the social, economic and legal aspects of EU-Turkey integration at the European Stability Initiative (ESI), a Berlin-based think-tank.
The ESI, which broadly focuses on enlargement methodologies for the European Union and the Europeanization of the Western Balkans and Turkey, has also recently devoted attention to the Syrian refugee crisis and its implications for the future of EU-Turkey relations.
Since 2009, Emcioğlu has been teaching constitutional law at Okan University. Between 2012 and 2015, he worked at the international relations journal Turkish Policy Quarterly.