13th annual Municipal Finance Conference


13th annual Municipal Finance Conference


The silver lining to the EU-Turkey migration deal

The heinous terrorist attack in Ankara Sunday reminds us of the urgent need to address the chaos and instability stemming from Syria, which has exacerbated tensions in the country. It highlights once more the urgent need for the European Union and Turkey to work more closely in order to improve Turkish stability and democracy. 

The deal reached between the European Union and Turkey last week to stem the flow of migrants into Europe has been met with considerable criticism (as my colleague Matteo Garavoglia, among others, have pointed out). Some say the deal is a product of raw cynicism and call it “horse-trading.” Others, particularly human rights organizations and the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), are concerned that the deal will not provide the asylum seekers, smuggled into the EU through Turkey, with the protection due to them under EU and international law. Some also see the deal as an ironic signal of the EU’s readiness to cozy up to Turkey’s deeply-flawed democracy to safeguard the EU’s own liberal order. They are appalled that the EU would ignore the growing authoritarianism in Turkey—where the government has lately shown little respect for freedom of expression and Kurdish civilians caught in the crossfire in southeastern Turkey.

But could there be a silver lining to this problematic deal? And is there a way it could simultaneously benefit the EU, Turkish democracy, and (most importantly) the interests of the Syrian refugees?

No end in sight

As the Syrian conflict enters into its sixth year, more than half of its population is displaced and no viable solution to the crisis is in sight. Close to five million refugees are now in the neighboring countries of Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey—with Turkey alone caring for more than half of them. On top of this, more than half a million have crossed into the EU along the so-called “Balkan highway” in 2015, precipitating a refugee crisis on a scale unprecedented since the end of World War II.

The EU has been deeply altered by all this. 

  • Firstly, there is a sense that Europe has lost control of its borders, which has in turn fueled xenophobia and anti-immigrant sentiments. This has strengthened the hand of right-wing politicians with little regard for the EU’s hard-won liberal values. 
  • Secondly, the crisis sent shockwaves across Europe and tested the EU’s solidarity at a time when the EU was barely recovering from the shock of the euro crisis. Many still wonder whether the EU could withstand these pressures and keep its fabric together. This breakdown of unity is forcing a number of member states to introduce border controls, effectively suspending the Schengen regime as well as restricting the free movement of both people and goods within the EU—two main pillars of European integration. It is still to be seen whether German Chancellor Angela Merkel has put her career—as well as Europe’s liberalism—in jeopardy by arguing that “wir schaffen [das]” (“we can do it”) regarding the influx.

Downsides and upsides

Not surprisingly, the need for immediate action has pushed Merkel to explore a pragmatic solution, structured around enhancing control over the flow of migrants and refugees in return for burden-sharing with Turkey. The deal involves another 3 billion euros to be given to Turkey by 2018—as a supplement to the promised 3 billion euros from November 2015 (only a small portion of which has been delivered). This, however, should not be branded as a kind of protection money to be paid to Europe’s “gate-keeper.” In fact, these funds are meant to be spent, as the Turkish prime minister unequivocally noted, “not on Turkey but on refugees,” on top of the $10 billion that Turkey has already spent. They will be channeled into projects that will help refugees rebuild their lives until the conditions for a return home arise. 

The deal also promises the resettlement of Syrian refugees from Turkey to the EU. According to the deal, the EU will resettle a refugee from Turkey in exchange for every Syrian refugee that Turkey takes back. Clearly, Brussels has two goals: It is sending a message to the Syrians that asylum in the EU will not be beyond their reach, and is also discouraging them from risking their lives while trying to get to it. The key point here is that resettlement should occur in a controlled manner rather than in complete disorder.

The key point here is that resettlement should occur in a controlled manner rather than in complete disorder.

However, this involves a set of complications, which also explains the long trajectory of negotiations since last summer and last-minute “horse-trading” during this month’s summit. Firstly, it required weaving into the deal the terms of an earlier agreement, reached between the EU and Turkey in December 2013: That agreement had promised visa liberalization to Turkish nationals on the condition that Turkey took back illegal migrants and rejected asylum seekers that had transited Turkey en route to Europe. Visa liberalization was also contingent upon Turkey meeting a long list of criteria—similar to the ones Serbia, Macedonia, Moldova, and Bosnia-Herzegovina had to satisfy before their nationals could travel to the EU without visas. The latest deal between Ankara and Brussels only aims to speed the process—and does not waive Turkey’s obligation to meet these conditions. 

Secondly, the deal also promises to reinvigorate Turkey’s accession process to the EU. Turkey had started its accession negotiations in October 2005, at the same time as Croatia. Since then, Croatia has successfully opened, negotiated, and closed the 35 chapters of the EU-acquis and became a fully-fledged member in July 2013. For a range of reasons (beyond my scope here), however, Turkey has so far opened 14 chapters and closed only one. Indeed, this is the major factor that fuels opposition to the migrant deal: Many rightly believe that Turkey’s abysmal democratic performance is far from deserving these accession negotiations—let alone actual membership. Yet, the focus here does not have to be on eventual membership (and indeed, perhaps, should not be), but on encouraging reforms—the kind of reforms that the country had seen in the mid-2000s when the accession process was still credible and taken seriously.

Yet, paradoxically, these two aspects are the silver lining. They will provide the Turkish leadership with the impetus to sell the deal to its public as well as implement it. This deal comes at a time when support from the Turkish public for the EU is increasing and the Turkish government is increasingly recognizing that the chaos in Syria and the loss of export-markets in its neighborhood (not to mention Russian sanctions), have made the EU its only viable major economic partner. No wonder that Deputy Prime Minister of Turkey Mehmet Şimşek (responsible for economic affairs) remarked at a conference in Washington in January: “Turkey cannot look for inspiration to the north [read: Russia] nor to the south [read: the Middle East], but to the EU irrespective of its internal problems.” The deal could therefore function as a confidence-building measure, repairing the deep mistrust between the two sides. The very fact that the deal has taken so long to put together and negotiate in such detail should be taken as a sign of strong will to cooperate on both sides, rather than the product of horse-trading. 

Of course, there are a number of obstacles to overcome: The EU has to formally adapt the deal at its next Council meeting, for one, and then there is the lingering question of its actual implementation. If the two indeed occur, then not only will there be a genuine opportunity to jump-start Turkish democratic reforms, but it will also give the EU a chance to manage the huge challenges that the influx of refugees has brought in the way of the liberal order in Europe. More importantly, such an outcome would provide a much better level of protection for Syrian refugees, together with the greater prospects of developing them into productive members of their respective societies. Many think that such an outcome is a tall-order expectation—but then, what would the alternative look like? All stakeholders, including the United States (which is also hungrily searching for answers to the refugee question), have an interest in making this deal work.