EU-Turkey Agreement. A problem of capacity or politics?

2 September, 2020

In 2015, around one million refugees and migrants reached Europe by Sea. People from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq were forcibly displaced from their home countries due to war and conflict and came to Europe through Turkey to seek Asylum. Many of them, however, lost their lives in their journey to Greece in the Aegean Sea. The International Organization for Migration estimates that at least 3,771 people died crossing the Mediterranean that year, many of which were children.

In the context of these events, the Members of the European Council and the Turkish government agreed on a joint action plan to prevent refugees to put their lives further at risk and end the irregular migration to the European Union. On March 18th, 2016 a statement of cooperation was issued on the basis of a “one-on-one mechanism”. All new irregular migrants crossing from Turkey into the Greek Islands as from March 20th, 2016 would be returned to Turkey. In exchange, for every Syrian being returned to Turkey from the Greek islands, another Syrian would be resettled from Turkey to the European Union.

The aim of this agreement was to increase Turkey’s external control to the Greek border and to contain migration by reducing the number of asylum seekers arriving to Europe. In return, the EU would disburse 3 billion euros for the Facility for Refugees in Turkey – the country with the highest number of Syrian refugees worldwide – to improve their humanitarian situation, and mobilize additional funding of 3 billion euro up to the end of 2018.

Furthermore, the European Union agreed to reactivate renegotiation for the accession to the European Union and lift the visa requirements for Turkish citizens within the Schengen area. This political compromise came after individual Member States blocked the Commission from opening certain chapters to Turkey back in 2005, thus limiting de facto Turkey’s accession to the European Union.

Although the agreement was highly criticized by international organizations because of the impact it had on the human right to seek asylum and the false assumption that Turkey was a safe haven for Syrian refugees, it proved to be effective for the European Union. After its implementation, the number of irregular immigrants arriving to Europe dropped significantly from around 1 million in 2015 to approximately 30 thousand in 2018. Moreover, up until February 2019, 20,292 Syrian refugees were resettled from Turkey to EU Member States based on the one-on-one mechanism.

Four years after its implementation, however, the EU-Turkey agreement is hanging by a thread. On the 28th of February of the current year, the Turkish government unilaterally lifted the strict controls it had enforced since 2016 at its borders to Greece, leading to a sharp increase of refugees and migrants trying to enter the European Union. This comes after the killing of Turkish soldiers in Idlib by Syrian forces. Idlib is the last Syrian province where Syrian rebel groups still control significant territory. Turkey backs the opposition in Syria and has therefore been supporting rebel fractions based in the area. In an attempt to retake the city, Syrian forces clashed with Turkish troops stationed in the in Idlib, leading to the death of more than 30 soldiers.

After these events, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in a televised speech that Turkey could no longer handle the number of people fleeing the war in Syria and accused the European Union of not keeping their promises to help Turkey bear the load of the refugee crisis nor complying with the commitments of the cooperation statement of March 2016. In what may have been an effort to draw international attention to the crisis in Syria and push the European Union to fulfill its commitments under the statement of cooperation, Turkey opened its borders to the EU.

Attempts to reach an agreement on refugees have been ineffective so far and on March 9th, 2020, President Erdogan left from a near two-hour meeting in Brussels with President of the European Council Charles Michel and President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen without speaking to the media.

On this matter, the European Union has expressly stated that it “will not accept Turkey’s migration pressure at its external border and will use all necessary measures in accordance with international law to stop illegal crossings“. As of March 2020, Greece has denied migrants arriving to their islands the right to seek asylum and though it has the right to control its borders and manage crossings into the country, it has been highly criticized by the UN Refugee Agency for violating human rights of refugees due to the use of disproportionate force.

The tensions between the European Union and Turkey remain unresolved. In the meantime, the future of refugees continues to be uncertain at the boarder of Greece and Turkey, as well as in the refugee camps of the island of Lesbos, in the middle of a pandemic which has worsen their already precarious situation.

In words of the Executive Director of Human Rights Watch, Kenneth Roth, this is in reality a “political challenge, requiring political leadership in response – not a question of capacity to absorb the recent immigrants”. Turkey holds a strategical position for the European Union. Due to its geographic position, the country is a reception and transit country for refugees and migrants and plays as an outsourced external border control for migration coming to the European Union.

The recent events point to a politically motivated pressure on the European Union to act as an ally in the military operations in Syria, further provide financial aid for the housing of refugees in Turkey as well as to fulfill the commitments assumed under the statement of cooperation.

To this date, Accession negotiations of Turkey to the European Union remain frozen on grounds of the country’s backslide in the areas of fundamental rights and rule of law in the last years. Furthermore, visa liberalization for Turkish citizens has not been achieved due to lack of compliance with all 72 conditions of the European Commission

The political distance between the European Union and Turkey has only grown further in the last years. President Erdogan has engaged in frequent diatribes against the European Union, while the European Union has offered Turkey unrealistic promises. The rise of right-wing populism within Europe has further highlighted the “long-standing reality that there was never political consensus regarding Turkey’s accession”.

Relations between Turkey and the European Union seem to be at an impasse and governments have lost perspective of the current refugee and migration situation amidst political interests. The debate has been narrowed down to outsourced border controls in exchange for cash transfers and political gestures, leaving aside the central concern: the responsibility of the international community to give asylum to people fleeing from war zones.

The way forward will require a renegotiation of the Statement of Cooperation of March 2016. There seems to be no predictable time frame for Turkish full membership in the European Union. Visa liberalization, however, remains a key component of the Cooperation Statement of March 2016, and an acceleration to fulfill the Visa Roadmap, along with a renegotiation of the statement of cooperation with a more refugee-centered perspective, may be able to ease tensions.

We as A Path for Europe will closely watch the progress on the relation between the European Union and Turkey on migration matters and aim at sharing our ideas on this matter in the future.

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