The EU’s refugee saga and reenergizing relations with Turkey

The EU’s refugee saga and reenergizing relations with Turkey

Following the heavy hit it sustained after the global financial crisis in 2008, the EU has been challenged with the mass refugee flow since early 2015 which triggered a widespread debate over political stability, security, protection of its external borders and internal cohesion. Especially after the terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels in November 2015 and March this year, respectively, the efforts of member states to protect their borders and citizens have intensified, even reaching a point where the borders were closed and Schengen arrangements were suspended.

In such an atmosphere, an agreement was finalized on March 18 between the EU and Turkey to obtain the latter’s support to curtail the flow of refugees into the EU territory. Despite heavy criticism from the U.N. and several NGOs about its conformity with international law and humanitarian principles, even the divergences among member states rolled into a consensus when it was presented, primarily by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, as a priority for their national securities.

As the implementation of the agreement progressed, the number of migrants arriving in Italy and Greece by sea started to decrease. According to the U.N. Refugee Agency, the number of migrants was down from 29,619 in April 2015 to 12,578 in April 2016. However, the data might be misleading, as migrants and smugglers find alternative routes and the Mediterranean and the Aegean routes would become busier again in warm weather.

The current risk regarding the refugee flow, however, emerges from the possibility of Turkey’s non-cooperation in the event that the EU fails to deliver on visa liberalization for Turkish citizens. The European Commission, which met on May 4, decided that Turkey had complied with most of the 72 benchmarks and recommended to the European Council and the European Parliament that it move forward with the liberalization process. However, not all is finished. Despite the commission’s recommendation, the suggestion must be approved by the European Council and the European Parliament, representing the biggest risk in the entire procedure and something that needs to be handled carefully by EU leaders who backed the initial agreement with Turkey.

Although the immediate objective of curbing the number of new refugee arrivals has received Turkey’s support and already showed modest success, the EU still needs a comprehensive migration policy that addresses the political, legal, economic and humanitarian aspects of the problem. It requires a radical change in the European approach. The current EU migration policy, known as the Dublin system, was designed to make it harder for migrants to reach and remain in a member state. It is obvious that tight border controls and more restrictive visa and asylum policies have not achieved that end, and on the contrary, forced people to resort to illegal means to reach and breach the “Fortress of Europe.”

Looking ahead into the EU’s complicated internal problems such as the Brexit referendum, which will take place on June 23 to decide whether Britain should leave or remain in the EU, it is naïve to expect any concrete steps soon from the EU on the migration front. As the comprehensive migration policy could only be a long-term objective for the EU, the best bet for now for the EU is to continue to secure Turkey’s cooperation on the issue and that means approving visa liberalization for Turkish citizens whether Turkey fully complies with the benchmarks or not.

Despite all its problems, this might also reenergize relations between Turkey and the EU, which is even better news for both, although some shortsighted politicians on both sides refuse to see it as such.