How the EU and Turkey can work together on refugees

After many weeks of negotiations, the European Union and Turkey finally adopted a plan to stem the flow of Syrian and other refugees and irregular migrants to Europe. At a summit in Brussels on November 29, the EU pledged to give Turkey 3 billion euros to assist refugees in Turkey, grant visa-free travel for Turkish nationals starting in October 2016, and begin a “re-energized” accession process into the EU.

In return, Turkey must stop the uncontrolled flow of migrants to Europe and address the long-term needs of the refugees, primarily access to education and economic opportunity. The deal is meant to be a “win-win” for both negotiating partners and hopefully it will enhance the welfare of Syrian refugees. Will the deal hold? Will it bring Turkey back into the transatlantic fold and actually benefit the refugees?

Off to work they go?

For the refugees, the key part of the deal is the funding. The refugees already enjoy physical protection (particularly the roughly quarter-million who live in refugee camps and are nicely cared for), and Turkey has no intention of repatriating the refugees to Syria. Turkey is also providing basic health services. 

However, the most pressing challenges are providing food and shelter outside the camps, ensuring education for the children, and offering opportunities for refugees to earn a livelihood. The last is probably the most critical. If families cannot provide for themselves, they face pressure to put children to work (often in appalling conditions), force girls into early marriage or prostitution, or allow young men to turn to extremism. The lack of opportunity also encourages those who can still attempt the perilous voyage out of Turkey to Europe to do so. If the funds are accompanied by a genuine spirit of cooperation whereby the welfare of the refugees comes first, it would be the deal’s most important achievement.

I’ll scratch your back, you scratch mine

There are at least three good reasons for the EU and Turkey to make the deal work.

First, inadequacies in housing, education, and work opportunities for refugees in Turkey will drive more to make the journey to Europe. In a draft report based on a UNHCR survey, many Syrians who fled to Greece cited the lack of educational prospects for their children and the absence of economic opportunities as the reasons for their flight. So, the EU has a stake in helping Turkey out. Already, the cost of hosting more than 2.2 million refugees is bearing heavily on the Turkish government, which claims to have now spent more than $8.5 billion. That’s not a negligible sum in a country whose economy is growing at only about 3 percent (compared to 9 percent when Turkey first adopted its generous open door policy in 2011). Turkey needs help sharing the burden, especially now that most refugees in urban centers have depleted their savings and are increasingly in a desperate state. Providing for the education of more than 700,000 refugee children and opening at least parts of the labor market to refugees is no easy task. It will require legislation and organizational adjustment, but also an abundance of good will from Turkish citizens, who need to feel that these measures will benefit them too. 

Turkey has as much a stake in protecting Schengen as EU members do.

Second, the arrival of almost 900,000 refugees and migrants by sea to the EU has tested EU solidarity—even putting the continued viability of a borderless Europe into question. The Schengen regime can be regarded as the jewel in the European integration crown, enabling the creation of a “single market” within the EU and allowing for an unhindered movement of goods and people across national borders. The European Commission has calculated that the “single market” has contributed an additional 2.13 percent to the EU’s GDP growth since it was launched in 1992. Thanks to the customs union with the EU, Turkish goods travel freely within the EU. Hence, Turkey has as much a stake in protecting Schengen as EU members do. It is not surprising that Turkey connected cooperation with the EU on stemming refugee flows to the prospects of visa-free travel within Europe. Both sides will have an interest in implementing the EU-Turkey deal to protect the Schengen regime.

Third, Turkey’s neighborhood has been transformed dramatically in the last couple of years. Gone are the days when Turkish trade and business was booming and Turkey was touted as a model. Turkish commercial activity in the Middle East collapsed as Turkey became pulled into the chaos in the region. New punitive measures by Russia—introduced after Turkey downed its jet—are expected to have a disastrous impact on the Turkish economy. Turkish exporters now have basically nowhere to go but the EU. Furthermore, if the deal with the EU does indeed work, it promises to reinvigorate the accession process, eventually attracting more investments into the Turkish economy and opening the way to greater economic integration with the EU. On the EU side, the European Neighborhood Policy that was meant to create a “ring of friendly states” around the EU is in tatters due to security challenges and the associated instability. The last thing the EU should want is for Turkey to succumb to the chaos and instability in its neighborhood. In this sense, the EU-Turkey deal lays down a basis for reinvigorating EU-Turkish relations as well as for improving Turkey’s stability.

Pawns for improved relations?

These three factors should ideally motivate both sides to implement the deal. However, it won’t be without its challenges. Many call the deal unprincipled: it instrumentalizes the welfare of refugees to serve the interests of the EU and Turkey. A number of European leaders are uncomfortable with the deal because of the state of democracy, rule of law, and freedom of expression in Turkey. Many also resent the bullying and the populist language of the Turkish president towards the EU. 

If the funds are accompanied by a genuine spirit of cooperation whereby the welfare of the refugees comes first, it would be the deal’s most important achievement.

On the other hand, some in Turkey are uncomfortable with the deal because they simply do not trust the EU. They remember the way European leaders treated Turkey back when Turkey was enthusiastic about EU membership and keen to reform. 

While people on both sides perceive this deal as a transactional one—based on converging interests—Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, for one, may see the deal as representing something bigger. He said this week: “we’re a European people. The continent’s fate is our common concern and Turkey is ready to do everything that is needed.” In the long run, the deal might help build mutual trust, and it might set Turkey back on a path of reform and shared values with the EU. Indeed, such an outcome would truly be a win for all involved—including, of course, the refugees. The deal deserves support.