What the EU-Turkey agreement on migrants doesn’t solve

The EU and Turkey have reached agreement on the broad outlines of a coordinated strategy to respond to the migration crisis. According to the plan, discussed at an emergency summit on Monday in Brussels, all migrants crossing from Turkey into the Greek islands would be returned. For every migrant Turkey readmits, the EU would resettle one registered refugee from a U.N.-administered camp, effectively establishing a single legal migration pathway.

The deal, which has not been finalized, includes a pledge to speed up disbursement of a 3-billion-euro fund ($3.3 billion) aimed to help Turkey shelter the roughly 2.5 million Syrian refugees currently on its soil, and to decide on additional support. Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu has requested that Europe double its funding to 6 billion euro ($6.6 billion) over three years. He also called on European leaders to speed up the timetable on lifting visa requirements for Turkish citizens and to kick-start stalled accession talks.

Rough road ahead

Establishing a framework is an important step forward in the effort to forge a common approach to the mounting crisis. German Chancellor Angela Merkel—facing discontent at home over her open door policy—welcomed the tentative deal as a potential breakthrough. So did Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron.

However, key details remain unresolved: First, it is not clear that all EU countries would agree to take part in such a relocation scheme, given strong opposition to compulsory migrant quotas. On Monday night, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán vowed to veto any commitment to resettle asylum seekers. 

[K]ey details remain unresolved.

Second, Ankara’s demands regarding EU membership and visa waivers are likely to be contested. Turkey’s bid for accession has long been controversial, and will only be made more so by the court-ordered seizure of the opposition newspaper Zaman late last week. Visa-free access for Turkish citizens is likewise contentious. Already, leaders of Germany’s conservative Christian Social Union party have vowed “massive resistance” to any such measure.

Third, human rights groups have called into question the plan’s legality. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees raised concerns about its legitimacy under EU and international law, expressing unease over the blanket return of foreigners from one country to another. Amnesty International called the proposal a “death blow” to refugee rights. While Europe believes the legal questions can be resolved by declaring Turkey a “safe third country,” Amnesty has cast doubt on the concept. 

And so?

Talks will continue ahead of the EU migration summit, which will take place on March 17 and 18. Meanwhile, NATO will begin carrying out operations in the territorial waters of Greece and Turkey to locate migrant boats. According to Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, those efforts will focus on “collecting information and conducting monitoring” in an endeavor to stop the smuggling.

In recent weeks, as many as 2,000 migrants each day have been arriving on Greece’s shores. They join more than 35,000 migrants already stranded there, unable to travel north due to border closures along the Western Balkans route. Those closures cast in doubt the future of the continent’s open border regime—and with it, the unity of Europe.