In the early hours of March 8, German Chancellor Angela Merkel gave up on her goal to hammer out an EU-Turkey deal on refugees. Instead, she went away from an emergency meeting of EU and Turkish leaders with a half-baked agreement that raised as many questions as it offered recipes for success. The next few days and weeks will tell if both sides accept the bazaar bargain, but one thing is already certain: the ensuing political tremor in the EU and between Brussels and Ankara will be felt for a long time.
By bazaar standards, the Turkish government has so far brilliantly outmaneuvered the EU and Germany. After discussing a pro forma deal with European Council President Donald Tusk in Istanbul on March 3, Ankara stunned Germany two days later with a fresh proposal that seemed to fulfill Berlin’s greatest ambitions: emptying Greece of its migrants (as of a future date to be determined) and promising to organize an orderly transfer of Syrian refugees to Europe on a basis of one in, one out.
The price tag of this proposal: an extra €3 billion ($3.3 billion) of EU assistance for Turkey, a quicker agreement on visa liberalization for Turkish citizens, a speedy relaunch of Ankara’s EU accession negotiations, and not a word on the rule of law and freedom of expression in official EU documents. It was divisive, foxy, but efficient.
To many in Brussels, the EU’s democratic model was openly humiliated. On March 4, as soon as Tusk had taken off from Istanbul, the Turkish police raided the offices of Zaman, an opposition newspaper. On March 8, once EU leaders had left Brussels, the Cihan News Agency (part of the same group) was seized at the crack of dawn.
Coming after an abrupt rebuttal of a constitutional court ruling at the highest level of the Turkish state, these moves could not have sent a clearer message: the Turkish leadership no longer cares about EU political standards and, being in a position of strength on the refugee issue, is taking its revenge on years of humiliation by the duet of Merkel and former French president Nicolas Sarkozy, who repeatedly said that Turkey would never make it to the EU.
Now, the draft deal needs to be fleshed out, and this arduous process is likely to crush another set of EU principles, this time on refugees and asylum. Not only does the deal concern just Syrian refugees, not Iraqis, Afghans, or others, but it also contains a basic flaw: people will be forcibly returned to Turkey, a country that doesn’t give asylum protection to anybody other than European citizens. This is in complete contradiction to a 2013 EU directive on international protection, in particular its articles 38 and 39(2) on the concept of a safe third country.
In addition, Turkey will supposedly now host facilities at which the UN refugee agency and refugee officers of EU countries will conduct the well-charted process of determining migrants’ refugee status, something Ankara had previously refused to do. Will Turkey now accept the UN refugee agency’s asylum procedures? Or will the process be conducted by Turkey alone? And what will Turkey do with those whose asylum bids are rejected? This is dangerous, uncharted territory.
In political terms, the EU-Turkey deal, if approved, would amount to enforcing a collective refoulement, or pushback, of refugees (the exact opposite of the EU’s standard non-refoulement policy) and to subcontracting the EU’s border protection to Turkey. In institutional terms, this essentially means giving Ankara a sort of accessory role in the EU’s border agency Frontex, the European Asylum Support Office, and, in due course, the future EU border and coast guard agency.
Will such a crooked deal suffice to stop organized crime networks from luring desperate people to Europe? Most probably not. The past thirty years of irregular migration around the Mediterranean have shown a constant pattern: smugglers can switch routes within hours or days, while governments react within weeks at best. Believing that the Turkey deal will drastically curtail migratory flows in 2016 is a losing proposition.
With great pain, some sort of agreement with Turkey will probably be hammered out at one point or another. Berlin is in a greater hurry than Ankara, but politically, the more the haggling goes on, the better for the nationalist narrative of Turkey’s leadership. Given the political panic in Europe and the astounding string of blunders emanating from serial European Council meetings, this scenario will last as long as EU politicians can bear the personal humiliation without paying a hefty price in elections. At the moment, the diplomatic branch of the Turkish government deals directly with those it considers instrumental for the deal, namely Merkel and Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras. But this is only the short term.
Looking beyond the horizon, what could be in store for refugees, the EU, and Turkey?
For the foreseeable future, refugees will endure more misery and uncertainty, women and children will keep being abused, traffickers will become richer, and the EU will continue to trample on its principles. EU leaders’ prestige will inevitably be further tarnished in 2016.
With Turkey, the EU is now acting as a facilitator of a more authoritarian state with a more nationalistic narrative, leading to the dissolution of any semblance of democracy. Given the tense domestic political context, there is no reason for leaders in Ankara to stop smashing the country’s rule-of-law architecture, restore the freedom of expression, leave room for a democratic Kurdish opposition, or restart the Kurdish peace process.
The pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) will keep being harassed and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) hollowed out of its voters until, perhaps, another snap election brings about a two-party parliament. In other words, pressed with short-term issues, the EU has given up on its strategic objective of supporting a stable, democratic Turkey at its doorstep. This is a massive game changer.
The intra-EU backlash will be felt in three different ways. First, there will be a strong political rejection of Turkey, possibly accompanied by the failure of an early deal on visa liberalization, and ultimately a rejection of Ankara’s EU accession process. Second, there will be deeper divisions among EU governments on migration and asylum. And third, there will be a steady rise of populist, rejectionist, and Islamophobic forces in Europe. Moral bankruptcy comes at a hefty price.
Along the way, Merkel has ushered in a complete failure of the Lisbon Treaty’s post-2009 foreign policy architecture. The initial idea of crafting foreign policy among the big states was bad enough. In 2015, micromanaging crises such as the refugees surge exclusively at the level of the European Council was another mistake, which led to hasty decisions being made without the advice of informed people. Finally, Berlin’s move to undercut both its key EU partners and the EU institutions has proved fatal for any hope of a consistent policy on the refugee crisis. Institutional bankruptcy has dissolved Europe’s soft power.
The current political mood in Europe’s higher spheres can be depicted simply: a strong Berlin was acceptable, a panicky Berlin was unexpected, but a Berlin that stabbed the EU in the back was shocking. A lot of china has been broken in the European store, and it will take a long while before the cleanup is completed and confidence restored. The fact that such a moral and political disaster was engineered by a Berlin-Ankara duet is not the least of the bleeding wounds left behind.