Migrant crisis: EU-Turkey deal may signal change in relations

Opening door to Syrian refugees could be political gamble of Angela Merkel’s career

Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel addresses a news conference after an EU summit in Brussels, October 16th, 2015. Photograph: Francois Lenoir/Reuters

Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel addresses a news conference after an EU summit in Brussels, October 16th, 2015. Photograph: Francois Lenoir/Reuters

 

Thursday night’s agreement on an EU-Turkey deal could signal a changing point in the European Union’s relationship with Turkey.

Engagement between the EU and Turkey has been intensifying over the last few weeks, as the EU struggled to respond to the refugee crisis that has seen hundreds of thousands of people enter Europe this year .

Discussions on the action plan agreed overnight were first proposed 10 days ago during Turkish president Recip Tayyip Erdogan’s two-day visit to Brussels, where he met the heads of the European Commission, European Council and European Parliament.

EU vice-president commissioner Frans Timmermans and enlargement commissioner Johannes Hahn had been due to fly to Ankara last Sunday for talks, with the aim of securing an agreement ahead of this week’s EU summit, but the three days of mourning prompted by Saturday’s terrorist attacks delayed the visit until Wednesday.

In late-night talks with Erdogan on Wednesday night the commissioners agreed a deal that was presented to EU ambassadors.

Under the plan, the EU has promised to consider visa liberalisation for Turkish citizens by the spring of 2016, a request that Ankara has long demanded, but is likely to be opposed by some member states who are wary of granting more than 70 million Turkish people access to the Schengen area.

The council also agreed to open up a number of “chapters” in the Turkish accession negotiations that have been stalled since 2005 when membership discussions began.

While the final communiqué issued by leaders overnight made no mention of the figure of €3 billion in funds demanded by Turkey, Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel indicated the proposal would be considered.

“Turkey after all has already spent €7 billion on refugees and has received less than €1 billion,” Merkel said after the summit. “We have to be stronger on burden sharing.”

In return, the EU wants greater help from Turkey in tackling the migration crisis. This includes: improving conditions in refugee camps, clamping down on people smugglers who are transporting illegal migrants to Europe, and fully implementing the “readmission agreement” between Turkey and the EU signed in 2013, which requires Turkey to re-accept migrants who are deemed to be illegally residing in the EU.

Opposition

While leaders welcomed the agreement last night, there is still some political opposition to the plan and further changes are likely as the details are worked out. Speaking on his way into the meeting, France’s president François Hollande warned against any rapid moves to lift visa requirements, warning that visa liberalisation would be “a process that requires a lot of conditions”.

European Council president Donald Tusk said the initiative would be justified only if the goal was to reduce the flow of refugees. Greece and Cyprus (represented at the summit by Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras), are also expected to be strongly opposed to any move that could signal a softening of accession demands for Turkey.

But the backing of Merkel, who visits Ankara on Sunday, is a strong boost to the plan. The official position of Germany, home to a significant Turkish population, has been a “privileged partnership” relationship between Turkey and the EU.

Already, the proposal has drawn criticism from the European Parliament, which has been one of the most vocal critics of alleged human rights abuses and clampdowns on media freedom in Turkey.

Guy Verhofstadt, the leader of the Liberal Group Alde, accused the EU of trying to “outsource” the refugee crisis. “It is positive that the EU will work more closely together with Turkey, but we should not make ourselves dependent on a country which is becoming increasingly authoritarian,” he said on Friday.

While last night’s agreement opens up a potential new phase in Turkish-EU relations, it also confirms a shift in the EU’s policy on the crisis. Rather than focus on the humanitarian and legal obligations to accept and relocate refugees, the talk on Thursday night was of strengthening borders, implementing “readmission” agreements and stemming the flow of arriving refugees by addressing the problem at source.

While Tusk has been driving this policy shift, it may also reflect a change in public mood in Germany. Merkel has been facing mounting criticism from within her own party and from the public over her handling of the crisis as Germany struggles to cope logistically with the influx.

A survey by German public television earlier this month showed her approval rating has dropped to its lowest level since 2011. Officially, the German government is now focusing on increasing deportation rates for those not eligible for asylum, particularly from the Balkan region, while processing those genuinely in need of asylum from Syria.

But the chancellor’s decision to open the door to Syrian refugees, which aides say was driven by her passionate belief in a Europe without borders having grown up behind the Berlin Wall, may prove to be the political gamble of her career.

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