Guy Verhofstadt, a former Belgian prime minister, is President of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe Group (ALDE) in the European Parliament.
BRUSSELS – Europe’s refugee crisis is far from solved, but there are signs that the agreement finalized by the European Union and Turkey on March 18 is reducing the flow of refugees and migrants from Turkey to Greece. According to Frontex, the European border-management agency, the 26,460 migrants detected crossing the EU’s external borders in the eastern Mediterranean in March amounted to less than half the figure recorded in February.
The president of the European Council, Donald Tusk, has already declared that the deal, whereby the EU pays Turkey billions of euros to shut down the Turkey-Greece migratory route, is “producing results.” Many EU governments are breathing a sigh of relief. The flows of refugees on this route may well have been stemmed.
But at what price?
Turkey and the EU are now working together closely to execute the agreement, yet relations between them are increasingly strained. And the deal’s legitimacy and legality has rightly faced a wave of skepticism from NGOs, charities, and human-rights lawyers. As the agreement is implemented, a number of flashpoints are already foreseeable.
A key element of the deal is that EU leaders agreed to allow visa-free travel for 75 million Turkish citizens by the end of June. Originally, Turkey was obliged to meet 72 benchmarks by then, with some EU diplomats claiming that only half have been met. In early May, however, the European Commission gave conditional support to visa-free travel while insisting on fulfillment of five of the most important criteria.
Time will tell whether the EU stands up to Turkey’s government and ensures that the necessary conditions (which are technical as well as political) are met. But we can expect stormy waters ahead.
For one thing, granting Turkey’s population visa-free access to the EU’s border-free Schengen Area is hardly uncontroversial. When EU leaders signed up to the visa deal, they did so in relative secrecy and at the peak of the refugee crisis. But it is likely that the very same populists and nationalists who drove EU leaders to craft the agreement with Turkey in order to contain the refugee crisis will now lead the backlash against visa-free access for Turkish citizens.
Moreover, Tusk has not acquitted himself well. During a recent visit to Turkey, he asserted that the Turkish government is “the best example in the world” of how to treat refugees. To be sure, Turkey has taken more than its fair share of refugees from Syria and elsewhere. But it is obscene for an EU representative to suggest that Turkey is a role model for others.
Turkey is not a safe country for refugees. Indeed, there is growing evidence that it is pushing Syrian refugees back across the border. And shocking reports have emerged of Turkish border guards shooting at Syrian civilians who are fleeing the Islamic State and the civil war in their country.
Calls for the European Commission to investigate these claims have been met with shrugs. Human Rights Watch and the United Nations estimate that at least 100,000 Syrian civilians are now stranded on the Syrian side of the Turkish border. But by signing up to a grubby deal with Turkey, EU leaders have forfeited any right to lecture President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan – and Erdoğan knows it.
The EU-Turkey deal has also dramatically diminished the EU’s credibility as a defender of freedom of speech and press freedom. Bekir Bozdağ, Turkey’s justice minister, disclosed last month that Turkish prosecutors have opened over 1,800 cases against people for insulting Erdoğan since he became President in 2014. Those targeted include cartoonists, journalists, and even children.
Instead of encouraging politicians in Europe to stand up for press freedom and fight for reform in Turkey, the EU-Turkey agreement risks silencing them, for fear of upsetting Erdoğan. The Turkish government’s decision to seek the prosecution of a German comedian, Jan Böhmermann, for insulting Erdoğan illustrates just how vulnerable the EU now is to Turkish extortion. EU leaders know that if they press him too much, he can at any moment reopen the refugee floodgates.
The EU-Turkey deal has been so good for Turkey that other transit countries have taken notice. Libya’s vice president, Ahmed Maetig, has expressed hope for a similar agreement with his country to restrict the flow of migrants to Europe, despite the fact that the government does not control large parts of the coastline.
Paying other people to deal with one’s problems might be a successful short-term solution, but it is rarely viable in the longer term. Europe needs to work with Turkey, not become dependent on it. By signing up to this deal, the EU has given Erdoğan the keys to its backdoor. This will not help Turkey’s EU membership prospects, and it certainly isn’t in the EU’s long-term interests.