Failure to agree on a deal with Turkey at today’s summit on migration will condemn Greece to becoming the refugee camp of Europe, Commission First Vice-President Frans Timmermans warned on Wednesday (16 March).
Timmermans, the right hand man of European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, said that the only way to deal with the massive influx of migrants was to seal a controversial pact with Turkey.
Most of the migrants get to the EU by paying people smugglers to take them to Greek islands from the Turkish coast.
The deal, to be discussed by European leaders over Thursday and Friday (17-18 March), would see one Syrian refugee transferred from a Turkish refugee camp to the EU for every illegal Syrian migrant sent back to Turkey from Greece.
“What is now the alternative, the closing of borders across Europe?” said Timmermans at a press conference in Brussels.
“Do you really want to condemn Greece to becoming the refugee camp of Europe?”
Timmermans said, “What we are proposing now is a temporary measure to break the business model of the smugglers.”
“This will show Syrian refugees, you will have the possibility of going to the EU in a legal way. Whereas, if you do make the choice to go with people smugglers, you will arrive in Greece, but be returned to Turkey,” he said.
In return for the deal, Turkey is demanding another €3 billion on top of the €3 billion aid package that was agreed in November last year, as well as eased visa requirements for travel in the EU, and progress on talks for it to join the EU.
The EU will push to only pay the second €3 billion after the first €3 billion has been spent, sources said.
The migrant trade-off has been blasted by critics, including the UN, over whether it breaks international law and the EU’s own rules on asylum.
But EU sources claimed that the rules would be followed if every migrant was guaranteed individual hearings, and right to appeal.
The hearings would be held in processing “hotspots” in Greece with EU asylum agents helping the Greek authorities. It is estimated it will cost €20 million a month.
Despite EU officials insisting it will be temporary, there is no deadline for the scheme to finish. A senior EU official said it should eventually be replaced by a voluntary readmission scheme to Turkey.
The European Convention of Human Rights expressly forbids mass deportations. But EU officials said the individual hearings would stop that law being broken.
Just because a flight was full of the same people being returned to the same place at the same time did not make it a mass deportation under EU case law, one official said.
Both Turkish and Greek law will have to be changed to make sure its treatment of migrants respects the Convention, Timmermans said.
“There need to be legal changes in Greece and Turkey. We are not turning our back on refugees,” he said.
But EU officials admitted that even if it was a success, the migrants would simply try and get to Europe by a different route, most likely by land from Turkey into Bulgaria.
“Until now the highway to the EU is through the Greek islands but with the mechanism we are discussing in place this route can be change, for example through Bulgaria,” he said on condition on anonymity.
Turkey has not signed the Geneva Convention, which guarantees the humane treatment of refugees.
But EU sources insisted that any agreement would still be legal if Turkey changed its law to ensure they were treated in a way “equivalent” to the Convention. How that would be policed and monitored is yet to be decided.
Turkey also has deportation deals with countries like Afghanistan, which have terrible human rights records. If they were to deport migrants returned to Turkey, that would break laws stopping refugees being sent back to war zones.
Timmermans warned that the migrant swap was not a “silver bullet”.
“We need to be crystal clear with EU member states. The refugee problem is not going to go away and the EU will have to be serious about the resettlement of refugees.”
EU countries have agreed to resettle refugees across the EU. But so far, only about 500 have been homed.
The scheme still has a “long way to go” before being agreed by European leaders, one EU official said, echoing comments made by European Council President Donald Tusk in Cyprus on Tuesday.
Tusk conceded there was “a catalogue of issues” to address before the Brussels talks, not least the fact that Turkey refuses to recognise Cyprus as a country.
The summit begins this afternoon with the Turkish PM Ahmet Davutoğlu jetting into Brussels late that evening.
Once leaders have finished a night of marathon talks, they will meet Davutoğlu to try and finalise the deal.
“We hope to have breakfast with the Turkish PM on Friday morning, but the kitchen will be ready to serve lunch as well,” the official said in a sign of the difficult negotiations ahead.