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Making the best of the bad EU-Turkey deal

The EU-Turkey deal is a bitter pill. Agreed to on March 18 but far from fully implemented, the agreement is ambiguous from the legal point of view, undermining the rights of asylum seekers and the duty to offer international protection; and hard to execute, as it gives Greece herculean burdens to screen asylum requests and relies on Turkey to respect international law writes Rosa Balfour. Even if it were implemented, it would not solve the problem of the refugee influx. The closure of the Eastern Mediterranean route has re-opened other, more dangerous routes, which resulted in at least 500 victims two weeks ago – nearly half the death toll of 2016.

The only thing the EU-Turkey deal brings is some respite from the divisive quarrelling that caused a major governance crisis in Europe. This time needs to be used to find an effective and morally acceptable response to the migration flow issues. And it needs to be done without undermining the credibility of the accession process.

Short-term, visa liberalization is the next challenge: on May 4 the EU Commission is set to recommend offering Turkey visa liberalization next June, allowing Turkish citizens to visit the EU for up to three months. The liberalization process is a technical one, requiring the accomplishment of 72 benchmarks on identity documents, migration management, law, order and security, fundamental rights, and readmission of irregular migrants. The offer was on the cards before the refugee influx and has been experimented with the Balkans states.

Visa liberalization is seen as an incentive for the recipient country, but the reforms demanded also reflect EU interests in strengthening its external borders and developing trustworthy relations with neighbors. It entails signing readmission agreements so that the EU can expel unwanted individuals, introducing biometric data passports to enable monitoring of movements across borders, fighting organized crime, and cooperating with European states and institutions such as Europol. It is a potentially win-win tool: governments accomplishing it score points with their voters, as citizens are the direct beneficiaries and the EU gets security guarantees on home affairs.

There are some possible negative, but manageable, consequences: visa liberalization with the Balkan states did cause a minor surge in asylum requests. And, of course, irregular migration occurs simply by people outstaying their visit. Members of the European Parliament have requested checking the feasibility of lifting visa liberalization should the system be abused – the procedures already exist but have never been tested.

The fears that the system could be abused underline the misplaced politics of the process. Visa liberalization should not be a tool of power politics; it should be a means to encourage political reform –which the EU is not doing in the face of Ankara’s blatant abuses of power and systematic government pushback on free media and freedom of expression. Offering Turkey liberalization now is highly questionable. There still are key question marks over Turkey’s anti-terrorism laws, judicial cooperation with Cyprus, and minority rights. It is hard to see how Ankara can revise these in one month.

Enlargement has universally been hailed as the EU’s most successful foreign policy. Any doubt over how visa liberalization might be granted will undermine the credibility not just of the EU’s visa policy, but of the entire accession process. The Balkan states, which the EU has held to strict but fair conditions, could become an unintended victim.

The deal underscores the EU’s role as demandeur vis-à-vis Turkey, based on a misguided analysis. Turkey needs Europe as much as Europe needs Turkey. Not long ago Ankara’s foreign policy aimed for ‘zero’ problems with its neighbors, to play the pivot in the Middle East, and serve as an example for the revolutionary countries of the Arab Spring. It has since squandered what leverage it thought it had on Syria’s government, soured relations with neighboring countries, Russia, Israel and a handful of Arab states, and has its own internal Kurdish conflict. Turkey has few friends outside the Europeans.

Making good use of the time offered by the EU-Turkey deal is the only positive it may yield. This means devising a more comprehensive long-term approach, moving away from short-term crisis management and the over-emphasis on security and containment of flows.

Rebalancing relations with Turkey and keeping EU credibility on visa policy is one aspect, developing initiatives toward the countries from which people are fleeing another. UNHCR data puts Syrians as the main Mediterranean flow (43%), followed by Afghans (23%) and Iraqis (14%). The EU needs to beef up its political and aid interventions in all three countries ridden by conflict.

On the home front, nothing short of improving legal channels towards Europe will solve the problem. The signs are negative: only 1,145 people have been relocated from Greece and Italy (160,000 were agreed upon in September 2015), and eight member states have taken in none. And only 5,677 of the 22,000 the EU promised last year to take from UN camps outside Europe have been resettled. As relocations cannot be imposed on countries or on migrants, more creative burden sharing should underpin the development of a common asylum system and a solidarity fund to support countries offering refuge.

The EU-Turkey deal might not be salvageable; but if Europe’s states can use the time it bought them to good end, it will have been worth something.

Rosa Balfour is a senior fellow at the Brussels office of the German Marshal Fund (GMF). This article was first published by the GMF. .- See more at:

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