Has the EU-Turkey refugee deal collapsed?

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

The EU-Turkey deal was designed to stop boats like this one crossing to the Greek islands. [adamansel52/Flickr]

The EU was right to postpone visa liberalisation for Turkish citizens until Ankara fulfils its end of the migrant deal. But it is time to work out a viable ‘Plan B’ in case the deal falls apart, writes Solon Ardittis.

Solon Ardittis is Director of Eurasylum, a European research and consulting organisation specialising in migration and asylum policy. He is also co-editor of  Migration Policy Practice, a bimonthly journal published jointly with the International Organisation for Migration (IOM).

So, end of story, no more EU-Turkey deal on migration in the coming days or weeks? The decision by the European Parliament on 12 May to delay its discussion of the visa liberalisation process for Turkish citizens for as long as Turkey fails to fulfil its benchmarks, and the resulting threat by a senior Turkish official to ‘send the refugees back to the EU”, are clearly inauspicious developments.

While such fallout would not come unannounced, since many in the EU institutions and member states had started to anticipate, if not plan for, such an outcome several weeks ago, its effect on the on-going EU migrant crisis would of course not be inconsequential. Despite all its imperfections, and the criticism it had generated from a number of UN agencies and NGOs, the EU-Turkey deal had basically fulfilled its core mission: to stop the mass migration flows from Turkey to the Greek islands, disrupt the smugglers’ business model and therefore close one the main entry routes for irregular migration to the EU. The UNHCR’s figures speak for themselves: the number of Mediterranean sea arrivals to Greece has plummeted from 67,415 in January of this year to just over 3,460 in April.

So, is it back to square one?

Not necessarily. Should the EU-Turkey deal indeed be suspended or revoked, the shock and confusion in Brussels and in the member states might prove very significant. It would no doubt encourage many of the member states that had been so reluctant to adhere to most of the EU’s political solutions to the migrant crisis to date, including the Resettlement and Relocation plans, and the Schengen and Dublin systems, to revisit their positions. It would also bring them to the negotiating table to address this unprecedented crisis and avoid a repetition or escalation of the levels of mass migration from before the EU-Turkey agreement.

While the European Commission has always denied having any ‘Plan B’ in the event the agreement with Turkey should fall through, the political and humanitarian situation that would result from a suspension of the agreement would no doubt prompt the executive and the member states to envisage a much more ambitious, viable and consensual set of measures to address a possible resurgence of the crisis. Not least in view of the concurrent expansion of a new migratory front in Libya. The EU and the member states would be even more propelled to do so given that a reliance on the active cooperation of major transit countries such as Turkey, despite its merits on a strictly operational front, would have shown its political limits and constraints. This is in addition to the fact that a similar cooperation agreement could not even be negotiated with Libya in the current absence of any viable government and stable institutions.

It is likely that a possible suspension of the EU-Turkey agreement would lead to both additional border control measures and new approaches to existing resettlement models. The former might include stepping up on-going efforts by Frontex and NATO by surveilling migrant boats as closely as possible to the Turkish coast and getting people safely off the boats at the start of their journey. This would allow for a triage to be conducted on board and for a speedy return to Turkey to be effected for those who are clearly identified as irregular migrants without any need for international protection. This option, which would of course entail the presence of UNHCR/EASO officers on board Frontex and NATO vessels, would draw from the model that had been implemented very successfully by the Clinton administration in relation to Haitian migrants, resulting in the processing at sea of some 2,000 people per week.

In terms of new approaches to resettlement, one option would be to expand the geographic scope of existing EU Resettlement/Relocation schemes to key non-EU host countries. The idea would be to make use of all current and future EU cooperation and partnership agreements with third countries to incentivise them to participate in the EU resettlement scheme. This would include not only traditional host countries such as the USA, Canada and Australia, which to date have resettled relatively limited numbers of Syrians and Iraqis, but also major countries in the South, particularly in the Gulf region. This EU-led global resettlement scheme could be discussed, in particular, at the first ever World Humanitarian Summit, to be convened by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on 23-24 May in Istanbul, and at the United Nations Summit on Refugees and Migrants, to be held in September in New York.

Whatever the new initiatives to be discussed in the event the EU-Turkey agreement is suspended, the decision by Presidents Juncker and Schulz on 12 May to postpone the visa liberalisation process until Turkey fulfils all its commitments can only be applauded. The possible political and humanitarian costs of such a decision would be less damaging to Europe’s history than it renouncing its fundamental values.

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