Is it time to update the Turkey-EU migrant deal?

Is it time to update the Turkey-EU migrant deal?

The heavy military campaign launched by Syrian regime forces into the Idlib province of Syria in recent months has revived concerns over a new massive refugee influx towards Turkey as the enclave hosts around 3.5 million people. Under attack by Russian-backed Syrian forces, these people have no places to run to other than Turkey. Tens of thousands of civilians have already fled north from Idlib to the Turkish border, with reports that the humanitarian crisis in the province is getting deeper.

Although the situation in Idlib has long been giving the alarm, the attention of the international community was caught only after Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan warned Europe of a new migrant wave.

He warned that Turkey may reopen the route for Syrian refugees to enter Europe if its plans to create a safe zone along the Turkish-Syrian border do not get support from the international community. Erdoğan has many times said Turkey was hoping to set up a peace corridor in northeastern Syria for the return of around one million Syrians to their homeland. Besides, Turkey seeks more financial support from the international community, particularly the EU, as the cost of hosting four million Syrians is in a constant increase.

Vice President Fuat Oktay, in a statement a day after Erdoğan’s warning, clarified that the Turkish president’s notice on opening gates for the refugees was “neither a threat nor a bluff.” Oktay said the thought that Turkey will bear a new migrant flow is “wrong.”

“Turkey is not any other country’s guardian, nor their migrant center. It is not the country that will pay the bill for the crises that [other countries] create,” he added.

All these call to mind the discussions between Turkey and the EU throughout 2015 as the European continent had witnessed the influx of millions of Syrian refugees via Turkey. The process ended with a joint statement by Turkey and the EU in March 2016 which brought about a comprehensive deal on how to tackle the growing migrant problem.

Still in force, the deal stipulates that all irregular migrants crossing from Turkey into the Greek islands will be returned to Turkey and that for every Syrian being returned to Turkey from the Greek islands, another Syrian will be resettled from Turkey to the EU. In return, the deal obliges the EU to disburse 3+3 billion euros to Turkey in order to share the burden. Apart from these items, the March 2016 statement suggests re-energizing Turkey’s accession process, accelerating the visa liberalization process for Turkish nationals and working on upgrading the customs union.

Three-and-a-half years after the deal, it’s hard to argue that the implementation of the agreement satisfies Turkey. Erdoğan and all his ministers have always been very critical against the EU over the migrant deal in general terms, but they never canceled it.
But now, with Idlib becoming a major source of a new humanitarian crisis and a new refugee wave towards its borders, the Turkish government is indirectly urging the EU to look into this matter once again.

The message seems to be well received by Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte who has suggested that the EU should renegotiate the 2016 migrant deal with Turkey in light of Erdoğan’s complaints.

“Turkey’s dissatisfaction about the implementations of the EU regarding the refugee deal should be renegotiated,” Rutte told reporters at a joint news conference with Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, who was seeking the EU’s support in tackling migrants on the Greek islands.

As a matter of fact, the idea of renegotiating the deal with Turkey was floating around the European capitals since early 2019 because the turmoil in Syria will not end soon and that would further necessitate cooperation with the Turkish government. However, only time will show whether both sides will be able to sit around the same table for a new round of negotiations.

Should the two sides decide to revise the deal, it’s not difficult to guess that the prospected negotiations will be much more difficult than they were three years ago. Turkey’s demand list will sure be crafted in a maximalist way and will ask the fulfillment of all the promises for visa waiver, customs union, etc. given in 2016. More financial support will also be sought by the Turkish government.

But what will make these talks very tough is the fact that both Turkey and the EU have changed since 2016 and their ties have seriously been deteriorated due to several reasons, including worsened state of democracy in Turkey and ongoing eastern Mediterranean tension. The EU would, therefore, prefer to limit the new round of negotiations in terms of merely granting more financial assistance to Turkey despite the contrary intentions of the Turkish government.