Europe’s Reckoning on the Migration Crisis

Since the EU-Turkey migration deal was put in place in 2016, Turkey has used the refugee crisis as blackmail to extract concessions from its Westerns neighbors. Now as the deal is crumbling, Europe must once again face its complicated stance on asylum seekers.

Early March became a time of reckoning for the European Union in terms of its stance on the Syrian refugee crisis. Following the deaths of 33 Turkish soldiers at the hands of Russian-backed forces in Syria, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced it would open its borders and allow a new wave of refugees to flood into Greece.  

This action violates the migration deal forged between the EU and Turkey four years ago, which caused many to question the EU’s humanitarian commitment to asylum seekers. Now, it appears the EU’s decision is coming back to haunt them. 

The deal Europe struck with Turkey was a one-to-one formula, where for every Syrian refugee returned to Turkey from the Greek islands, the EU would find a home for another within its borders. The plan was designed to stifle the flow of migrants into Europe, provide political inducements for Turkey (a candidate for EU membership) and ease strain on Greece, which has become a dumping ground for asylum seekers since the crisis began. 

The EU allocated €6 billion in financial support in return for Turkey’s protection of its external border and promised full EU membership if other conditions were met. As of September 2019, Turkey hosts 3.6 million refugees, the largest of any country. Now Turkey is demanding visa-free entry into the Schengen for Turkish passport holders in exchange for resolving things at the border.  


The asylum paradox

The EU-Turkey deal highlights the predicament facing many liberal countries when it comes to mass migration. Refugee advocates and other opponents criticized it, saying that Turkey should not be considered a safe third country due to its history of human rights violations and its undermining of rule of law. Moreover, Turkey invaded northeastern Syria in October 2019 and has played a significant role in prolonging the conflict.  


"By 2015, Europe found itself facing an "asylum paradox", where it vowed protection for refugees while it simultaneously wanted to keep them as far away from its territory as possible."


In the wake of the Arab Spring and the Syrian conflict, Turkey essentially became Europe’s gatekeeper for thousands of people fleeing violence in their home countries. By 2015, Europe found itself facing an “asylum paradox”, where it vowed protection for refugees while it simultaneously wanted to keep them as far away from its territory as possible. EU member states faced political embarrassment in revealing the divide between their dedication to liberal norms versus their willingness to act on them.

This allowed for the deal to become a powerful tool for blackmail. Armed with enough political leverage, Erdoğan effectively coerced concessions out of its Western neighbors, while also severely damaging the EU and NATO’s credibility. 


Turkey’s blackmail

Erdoğan quickly seized this opportunity to make the migration crisis a powerful bargaining chip in Turkey’s dealings with the EU. After the European Parliament voted to suspend Turkey’s accession in November 2016, he threatened to open the gates “when 50,000 refugees were standing at the door”, the BBC reported. He related multiple military operations in northern Syrian–a region Erdoğan seeks to keep out of the hands of Kurds and Turkish militants–to the resettlement of refugees currently residing in the country. Currently, he is proposing a plan to return up to 1 million refugees in the Syrian territories under his control.


"The overall sentiment of many European countries is that Turkey is drifting away from the liberal values it would need to espouse for accession, opting instead for a more aggressive stance." 


The EU and NATO’s credibility have taken a blow because of Erdoğan’s actions. When Turkey purchased S-400 missile systems from Russia, NATO frowned but did nothing. When it invaded Syria in October, German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer proposed establishing an internationally controlled security zone along the Turkey-Syria border that would be defended by NATO and create a safe haven. The suggestion fell on deaf ears. 

The overall sentiment of many European countries is that Turkey is drifting away from the liberal values it would need to espouse for accession, opting instead for a more aggressive stance. The EU has imposed sanctions due to Turkey’s military incursions as well as illegal drilling in the Eastern Mediterranean, and has called for a suspension of the EU-Turkey Customs Union. However, these only feed the antagonistic narrative Erdoğan is spouting about the EU and inflict pain on both parties. 


Can the EU accept more migrants? 

Now that the deal is in tatters, the question of if the EU is prepared for another influx of migrants remains to be seen. While European Border and Coastguard Agency Frontex has become more involved and many European countries are in a better position than in 2015, the political climate has changed dramatically.

Anti-immigrant sentiments flared in the wake of 2015 and contributed to the rise of right-wing populists in countries like Germany, Hungary and Poland. The lack of consensus on how to approach reconstruction in Syria, one of the biggest hurdles to solving the refugee crisis, as well as migration in general will make it easier for Turkey to pit certain EU members against each other. 

Despite that it goes against the original agreement, Turkey is now looking for visa liberalization as a precondition for readmission and an update to the customs union. Turkish officials hope a compromise can be found by the next EU Summit on 26 March. If the EU yields, its credibility will suffer more and Turkey will continue its blackmail. If it doesn’t, it must prepare for more refugees to cross its borders.

About author: Nicole Ely


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