The EU-Turkey dirty deal on migrants: Can Europe redeem itself?

The one in-one out deal being worked out between the EU and Turkey is testament to the political vacuum we live in. By subcontracting its border management to Ankara’s increasingly authoritarian regime, the European Union is insulting its own values. In doing so, it violates the rights of asylum seekers under international law by undermining the principle of non-refoulement, ignores its duty to condemn Turkey’s increasingly inexcusable human rights record, and gives Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan unprecedented leverage over EU policymaking.

The EU’s so-called leaders know all this. They are even ashamed of it. And yet they have no choice. For all of them, the absolute priority is to stop and then begin regulating the migrant flow. This is crucial to save the Schengen Treaty, to keep right-wing populism in check, to salvage German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s increasingly untenable political position, to stop the Balkans from descending into utter chaos, and, surreally, to rescue David Cameron from driving the United Kingdom out of the EU.

The ticking clock

These developments are bound to upset anybody already worried by Turkey’s slide into illiberal democracy. Yet, realpolitik coupled with short-sighted policymaking on the European side leave no room for better alternatives. The question is therefore: What can Europe do with the time it buys for itself? Answer: It can buy itself one year to put in place two sets of policies.

One year. Hopefully this is how long the EU will need this dirty deal (for which there may be a silver lining, as my colleague Kemal Kirişci argues). Long enough to get through the summer and the inevitable increase in the number of migrants that will attempt to reach the EU. Long enough for the newly conceived European Union’s Border and Coast Guard to become fully operational. And long enough to establish at least the very basics of a fundamentally reformed pan-European asylum and refugee framework as implicitly suggested in the European Agenda on Migration

Proposals submitted by the European Commission aim at establishing an agency that would de facto replace the understaffed, underfunded, and ill-equipped Frontex. The new European Border and Coast Guard (EBCG) would have its own budget, the capacity to acquire its own equipment, a significant staff, and robust rules of engagement. While still falling short of a fully-fledged pan-European border agency, the EBCG could be operational by the end of the year and help Greek authorities bring order to its chaotic borders.

The set up of a European Border and Coast Guard is the centerpiece of the EU’s attempt to stem the migrant flow. Together with eventual success in bringing the Syrian conflict to an end, it should be enough to secure the EU’s borders. Having done that, Brussels should fundamentally revise the terms of the deal as well as the broader relationship with Ankara. Once less in need of a benevolent Turkey to manage its borders, the Europeans should become uncompromising on human rights and media freedom.

Once less in need of a benevolent Turkey to manage its borders, the Europeans should become uncompromising on human rights and media freedom.

More complicated might be to work out the other side of the same coin: a truly pan-European asylum and refugee framework. This will be harder to achieve because of radically different political sensitivities across Europe. The approaches of Merkel and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to refugees are unlikely to be easily reconciled. In private conversations, policymakers across Europe are quick to acknowledge that a new asylum policy will be in place many months after a revamped border policy, if at all.

A lot can be achieved in one year. But securing borders and establishing a truly European refugee framework should ideally go in sync. Asylum seekers need better EU border management to be in place for national governments to be able to establish a pan-European asylum and refugee framework. However, the danger is that, as the pressure on the European Union’s borders abates, so will the incentives for the EU to radically rethink its refugee policy. Asylum seekers therefore need efforts to secure Europe’s borders to fall short of what is needed. Luckily for them, Europe’s so-called leaders are unlikely to disappoint them.