The EU emerged from high-profile negotiations with Turkey over the immigration crisis on Monday with no firm answers and more divided than ever before. Like so many gabfests that involve heads of state, this summit was supposed to put the finishing touches on a deal that had painstakingly worked out beforehand: last week, a bevy of European diplomats led by European Council President Donald Tusk, had visited Turkey and hammered out what they believed to be a mutually acceptable deal involving the acceleration of EU payments to Turkey agreed upon in November in return for the Turks agreeing to take back any non-Syrians who were caught crossing to Greece.
But at a pre-summit dinner with Angela Merkel and Dutch PM Mark Rutte on Sunday night, Turkish PM Ahmet Davutoglu took a leaf out of Darth Vader’s book: “I am altering the deal. Pray I do not alter it any further.” Turkey’s new terms: an additional €3 billion (on top of the €3 billion already pledged) for the care and feeding of Syrian refugees coming into Turkey; visa-free travel in the EU’s Schengen zone; accelerated membership talks for Turkey’s entry into the EU; and the direct resettlement to Europe of as many Syrians as Turkey accepts back from Greece—a 1-for-1 trade designed to keep Turkey from becoming a holding pen of sorts.
Both the substance of the proposal, and how it was arrived at, rubbed EU leaders the wrong way. On the matter of unexpected doubling of the ransom refugee support funds, EU leaders were expected to grin and bear it, even as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan went on TV to claim that Brussels was late in making good on its previous commitments. That rictus grin must have been particularly painful to hold when it came to contemplating the matter of accelerating visa-free travel and EU membership talks, three days after Ankara initiated a crackdown on one of the country’s largest newspapers and dispersed attendant protests with tear-gas. And as far as the 1-for-1 swap, Hungarian PM Viktor Orban vowed to veto any such proposal. More generally, most EU leaders were reportedly frustrated that once again Angela Merkel was going behind their back to negotiate, and strongly advocate for, a revised deal with Turkey—a deal that completely blindsided most of them.
In typical EU fashion, lipstick was smeared all over this pig. A lofty-reading but still aspirational statement was released, and a follow-up meeting was scheduled for March 17, where differences are supposed to be bridged. How likely is that to happen? It’s impossible to say.
Many of Turkey’s demands are predicated upon assumptions that both parties know to be faulty. Visa liberalization for Turks is unpopular, particularly in Germany, where it’s seen as a legal path to increased migration. Furthermore, it is contingent on Ankara meeting a set of 72 conditions—the European Commission noted last week Turkey had made only “limited progress” in this regard. As for fast-tracking EU membership negotiations, that still hinges on Turkey recognizing Cyprus and its Greek-Cypriot government; Nicosia itself is not budging on this requirement, even though Berlin is said to be more relaxed. Turkey’s proffer is also questionable: as a European agency recently acknowledged (and we’ve been saying for some time), Turkey is less willing, and far less able, to stop the migrants from leaving in any event.
Perhaps worst of all, the 1-for-1 swap brings up an issue that Brussels had so far swept under the rug: the redistribution of migrants across the EU. A decision to relocate 160,000 migrants across the bloc was imposed over the heads of several Eastern European countries late last year, but so far only 600 have been successfully moved. Though only Hungary swore to veto the swap with Turkey, it’s almost certain that several other countries will have Orban’s back when push comes to shove. It will take great statesmanship to thread this needle—certainly greater than anything that was on display Monday.
But all that being said, some few rays of light have emerged. Most importantly, the leaders of Europe are finally pushing toward the right goal: the ability to return refugees caught at sea to the country from which they came—in this case Turkey. Since the refugee crisis began, a combination of Europe’s outdated refugee laws, diplomatic considerations, and conflict in Libya and Syria have led to a situation in which European patrol vessels have always carried anyone caught crossing the Mediterranean to Greek or Italian shores, where they’ve able to apply for asylum—vitiating any deterrence value naval patrols would have and endangering lives. This has to change if any long-term solution is to be found.
It is therefore heartening to see that the position for which Tusk had been pushing so hard before the summit was what amounts to a repatriation agreement of sorts. We correctly predicted that a shift to this position would be the natural result of the NATO-Turkey refugee agreement reached last month, which set the precedent for repatriation to Turkey. Interestingly, Tusk’s calculations seem to have included the deterrent value of NATO patrols. And despite all the twists and turns Monday’s summit took, the EU did stick to this position. The single most positive sentence to come out of Monday’s mess is undoubtedly this part of the joint declaration: “We need to break the link between getting in a boat and getting settlement in Europe.”
And if you’re not pushing for repatriation, you’re not really pushing toward a resolution of the crisis; it is an inescapable component of anything that could really change the status quo. If the EU wants, there’s much it could do unilaterally to speed up the breaking of the “link”—including legal changes that would probably give it more leverage in the next round(s) of negotiations. But lying behind all this is the unsettling realization—which “the Continent” has avoided for too long—that ultimately, having a foreign policy is the only solution. To put it concretely, there is no way to avoid confronting—and doing something about—the ongoing wars in Syria and Libya. But that conclusion is perhaps still too radical a change in thinking, so the Continent continues to twist and shudder, buffeted by the refugee crisis and used by the Turkish government.