Turkey, the European Union and the refugee crisis – a story of multiple failures


As the European Union’s leaders approach another summit focused on the refugee crisis, the EU has never looked more shambolic and less principled.

While the EU’s heads of government have different views on tackling the refugee crisis, in essence they agree on one fundamental goal – stopping refugee flows into the Union. Fortress Europe is the main aim. Austria has led countries along the western Balkans route in closing their land borders to refugees coming from Greece. The ensuing humanitarian crisis in Greece can, they claim, simply be managed.

“The proposed deal is a ‘Catch 22’ of which the EU’s leaders should be deeply ashamed”

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has condemned this closure of borders. Yet her preferred Turkey-EU deal also rests on the goal of almost all refugees staying in Turkey. The proposed deal, to be finalised – or not – at today’s summit, sets up a ‘Catch 22’ for refugees whereby those that make it to Greece will be sent back to Turkey (following a cursory process of assessment that, depending on its implementation, may or may not be legal). The EU will then take one Syrian refugee from Turkey for every one that is returned from Greece.

If this process actually works, and all refugees arriving in Greece are returned to Turkey, while other Syrian refugees in Turkey are then allowed into the EU, the flow of people from Turkey to Greece would surely dwindle. But the chances of any Syrian refugees being safely resettled in the EU would still depend on other refugees risking their lives to cross from Turkey to Greece. It is a ‘Catch 22’ of which the EU’s leaders should be deeply ashamed.

Any serious, principled and strategic approach to the number of refugees fleeing Syria and other conflict zones would properly set up a safe route from Turkey to the EU and work with the UN to process asylum claims, rather than leaving Turkey – and Lebanon and Jordan – to carry the burden alone. These refugees would then be resettled across the EU.

Yet the EU has failed to resettle, as agreed, even 160,000 refugees already in Greece and Italy. If the more than one million asylum-seekers entering the EU had been shared out fairly, Germany would be hosting around 160,000 people rather than the million it has taken. The criticisms of Germany for living up to its asylum obligations by other member states, and their refusal of solidarity in not also offering asylum show the EU at a nadir.

“EU leaders have repeatedly held back from criticising the rapidly-deteriorating state of human rights and democracy in Turkey”

There are multiple failures underpinning the EU’s woeful state of panic as it continues to circumvent any strategic and principled action.

Setting ‘Fortress Europe’ as the goal – reasserted at the mid-February summit – is both inconsistent with the EU’s obligations to respect the rights of asylum-seekers, and seriously undermines the EU’s soft power internationally and within its own region. Given the failure of EU countries to accept refugees, and their plan to ship refugees back from Greece to Turkey, how will the EU in future have any influence if other countries around the world similarly refuse to take people fleeing conflict?

The EU claimed at the start of the Arab Spring that it would no longer put its interests in security and stability ahead of human rights when dealing with authoritarian leaders – a principled approach that in the case of Turkey has been abandoned. EU leaders have repeatedly held back from criticising the rapidly-deteriorating state of human rights and democracy in Turkey – a further undermining of its own values. From deliberately delaying the annual report on Turkey’s membership bid last October – until after the Turkish elections – to the muted comments on the recent takeover of the Zaman newspaper, the EU has abandoned those in Turkey fighting for democracy, rights and media freedom.

The EU is also undermining its enlargement strategy. Drawing neighbouring countries into membership through a process based on respect for democracy and rights has been one of the EU’s more successful strategies. Yet in offering to open more negotiation chapters with Turkey, at a time when Turkey clearly no longer meets the EU’s democratic criteria, and when the EU is clearly no longer genuinely willing to consider Turkey as a future member state, makes the EU look hypocritical. Such a stance will surely weaken the influence the EU has over democratic reforms in western Balkan candidate countries.

The weakening of solidarity across EU member states did not start with the refugee crisis. It has been strongly evidenced throughout the eurozone crisis. The punitive neo-liberal austerity measures imposed on Greece and other southern member states have been highly destructive economically and socially, with EU efforts to tackle the resulting high unemployment, especially among younger people, minimal and ineffective. The refugee crisis has thrown this solidarity crisis into even more stark relief. From the UK to Denmark, Hungary and Slovakia, anti-refugee rhetoric has been strong – matched only by the strength of criticism rather than praise for Germany, Sweden and Austria for taking in large numbers of refugees. Much has been written about the undermining of Schengen and a border-free EU through the refugee crisis, but the ultimate cause of damage to the EU, and to Schengen, is the abandonment of solidarity. That some member states are ready to create a humanitarian crisis in Greece in order to stop refugee flows is one final indication of the depths to which the EU has let itself sink.

The refugee crisis looks set to continue. The wider crisis in the EU will also continue until the EU’s leaders rediscover strategy, principles and solidarity.

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