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Jun 9, 2016 | 09:45 GMT

10 mins read

EU, Turkey: In Search of a Lasting Migrant Deal

EU, Turkey: In Search of a Lasting Migrant Deal
(OZAN KOSE/AFP/Getty Images)
Forecast Highlights

  • Turkey, putting its own political and security interests ahead of the migrant deal, will refuse to meet some of the European Union's conditions for visa liberalization.
  • Because Brussels has few alternatives for reducing Europe's migrant burden, it will make security concessions to Ankara to finalize the deal.
  • Turkey will use the fact that the deal is more important to Europe to gain additional political advantages from the Continent in exchange for hosting its migrants.

As conflict throughout the Middle East and North Africa continues unabated, the influx of migrants from the war-torn region is putting more and more strain on Europe. Hoping to lighten its load, the European Union has turned to Turkey for help. According to the tentative deal struck between the two on March 18, Brussels will give Ankara an extra $3 billion in aid, accelerate its EU membership talks and ease visa restrictions for Turkish citizens by the end of June. In return, Ankara has agreed to keep migrants from passing through its borders and into the Continent and to take back any migrants who traveled to Europe after the deal's implementation March 20. Finally, to discourage illegal immigration from Syria, the parties have worked out a system whereby the European Union will resettle one legal Syrian refugee from Turkey for each Syrian non-refugee deported from Greece.

But for a deal that sounds so straightforward, the future is anything but. The agreement has yet to be finalized, and a number of unresolved problems still stand in its way. Negotiations have not been helped by the fact that Ankara's need for the deal is far less pressing than Brussels', a distinct disadvantage for Europe. As the warm summer months approach, threatening to bring more migrants to Europe's doorstep in droves, the Continent will have little choice but to bend on some of its demands to cement the deal with Turkey.

Fewer Migrants Are Reaching Europe

The European Union will have that flexibility only if European citizens believe that the deal is the Continent's best option for addressing the migrant crisis. After all, many Europeans are sensitive to Turkey's alleged human rights abuses and rule of law issues and will be hesitant to loosen the security-related requirements for EU visa liberalization that give Ankara pause.

Still, migrant flows from Turkey to Europe have declined markedly since the initial deal was implemented. Now, only hundreds — rather than thousands — of migrants reach Greek shores each day, a testament to the agreement's success. Given the time of year, the dwindling numbers are all the more notable. Normally, the spring season marks the start of an uptick in migrant flows as travelers take advantage of the warmer weather and more clement conditions to venture across the Aegean Sea. Growing insecurity and food shortages in Syria and Iraq, moreover, should sustain or even increase the number of asylum seekers currently heading to Europe. And yet the number is falling.

In part, the decrease can be attributed to more rigorous enforcement of Turkey's border closure with Syria, which technically has been in place for well over a year. Turkish forces have begun shooting at migrants attempting to cross into Turkey. Considering how long and porous the Turkey-Syria border is, however, this has probably had a limited impact. Europe's recent repatriation deals with a few South Asian states may also be discouraging migrants from traveling to destinations in the Continental bloc. But the only significant agreement so far was signed with the Afghan government, whose reluctance to take back migrants as stipulated is likely doing little to deter its citizens from fleeing to Europe. And since Afghans make up about one-fifth of the migrants reaching the Continent, it is doubtful that Brussels' repatriation deals are the primary factor stanching migrant flows.

All things considered, it appears the Turkey-EU accord is responsible for the bulk of the shift in migration patterns. Since March, Turkish authorities have been cracking down on the human smuggling rings that help migrants across the Aegean. In addition, there have been reports that the Turkish coast guard has stopped migrants from leaving the country. Regardless of how effective these measures are in practice, they have increased the perception among would-be migrants that the Turkey-EU deal is being actively enforced. This alone may be enough to dissuade migrants from assuming the risks and costs of going to Greece, only to be sent back to Turkey.

Brussels Has No Other Options

Without Turkey's help, the European Union has few tools it can use to stem the tide of migrants. In theory, it could turn migrants away at its borders, but doing so would exacerbate the humanitarian crises driving them to Europe in the first place — a consequence few EU countries are willing to accept. Alternatively, the Continent could send migrants back to their homes. But Brussels can negotiate repatriation agreements only with countries that are considered safe. Because most of the migrants entering Europe are fleeing conflict zones in Syria and Iraq, they are not candidates for repatriation.

That leaves Europe with only one option: to send migrants to a different country. But few countries are eager to take on the costs of hosting Europe's migrants. States along the Balkan route, for example, are determined to avoid becoming transit territories for migrants, as they have been in the past. At the same time, many Eastern European states remain strongly opposed to the creation of a mechanism to distribute asylum seekers across the Continent.

Capitalizing on Turkey's willingness to relieve Europe of some of its migrants is therefore a top priority for Brussels. Meanwhile, ensuring that the deal remains in place is critical for German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has staked her political future on resolving the migrant crisis. Before the European Union can finalize the agreement, however, it must determine two things. First, the bloc must deem Turkey a safe country that can receive migrants, a label that will require Ankara to meet a handful of legal and social standards. The standards themselves are somewhat unclear, since EU members define "safe" differently. Second — and more important — the European Union must decide whether Turkey has adequately complied with the bloc's 72 conditions for countries seeking visa liberalization.

Though Turkey has already fulfilled most of the conditions for each requirement, five remain that, from Ankara's perspective, directly contradict its national security objectives. Turkey will almost certainly balk at these stipulations, which include requiring Ankara to narrow its definition of terrorism to conform to European legal standards. Facing a significant terrorist threat, the Turkish government is loath to take any steps that could be seen to limit its national security capabilities. Even so, the deal is too important for Europe to pass up. After postponing the decision, allowing Ankara more time to meet its demands, a qualified majority of the Continental bloc will ultimately rule in Turkey's favor, accepting small modifications to the outstanding requirements to secure Ankara's participation. To make the deal more palatable to their constituents at home, European leaders will try to reaffirm their commitment to human rights in other ways, as Germany has already done with its recent recognition of the 1915 Armenian genocide.

Ankara Sees a Rare Opportunity

For Europe, the gains that would come from a deal with Turkey are clear and substantial. Whether the same can be said for Turkey, on the other hand — and whether the benefits outweigh the costs — is less clear. Playing host to millions of migrants for an indefinite period of time will bear significant political, social and economic consequences that Ankara will absorb only if the rewards are high enough.

Of course, many of Brussels' promises are quite attractive. For years, Turkey has tried to move forward with negotiations to become an EU member, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has made his country's accession to the bloc a high priority. That said, Ankara's heightened economic and political focus on the Middle East and Africa could mean that the pro-democracy and pro-market reforms necessary to gain EU membership will create more hassle than they are worth. Either way, the talks will be an important achievement for the Erdogan administration as it seeks greater economic integration with the Continental bloc and inclusion in its trade deals.

By comparison, the European Union's financial aid package will carry less weight in Turkey's calculations. The assistance — $6 billion in total — is a drop in the bucket relative to the cost of housing 3.1 million migrants. In May, former Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu estimated that the expenses associated with migrants in refugee camps alone totaled about $10 billion; the remaining 85 percent of migrants in Turkey have cost between $20 billion and $25 billion.

As the conflict drags on just south of Turkey, the number of Syrian migrants is bound to rise. The costs will grow accordingly, especially since Syrians often end up in southern Turkish provinces, where unemployment is already high. Many Turkish citizens living in these areas have similar educational profiles to the migrants fleeing Syria, increasing the likelihood of competition for low-skill jobs in sectors such as manufacturing and construction. Because few Syrians have been able to obtain work permits, area companies may be more inclined to hire them over their Turkish peers, whom businesses would have to pay at least the minimum wage. The struggle to gain employment could, in turn, lead to social tension and unrest. Meanwhile, half of Syrian migrants are children, three-quarters of whom do not attend school, a factor that could compound the socio-economic problems among Turkey's migrant population in the future.

Of Europe's concessions, visa liberalization is by far the most important to Turkey. The European Union's current visa policy has made travel to the bloc an onerous process for Turkish businessmen, politicians and citizens with family members living on the Continent. It has also made commerce with Europe, Turkey's largest trade partner, more difficult. Turkey's economy minister has even gone so far as to call the bloc's visa obligations a violation of human rights.

Forecasting the Migrant Deal's Future

To determine the long-term success of the Turkey-EU deal, two questions need to be answered: Will the European Union finalize the agreement, and if it does, will that agreement be sustainable?

The answer to the first question is clear. The migrant deal is vital to the Continent, which has few avenues for addressing the crisis on its own. Therefore, the European Union will give Turkey the time it needs to meet the bloc's requirements, and it will compromise on more sensitive issues, such as counterterrorism laws, to keep Ankara on board. Because Brussels will have to make its decision during peak migration season, Turkey will wield considerable leverage as the vote approaches, enabling it to push for more and better concessions from Europe. Though Brussels could attempt to delay its decision until winter returns, doing so might cause the deal to unravel, since Ankara will not house Europe's migrants for long without guaranteed terms.

The second question is more difficult to answer. With no end to the Syrian and Iraqi conflicts in sight, Europe's migrant crisis will likely continue for years to come. As the financial and social burden of Turkey's migrant population grows, the government in Ankara will face mounting pressure to increase its demands of Europe, including a tougher stance on the Kurdish People's Protection Units in Syria and Continental support for a Turkish-operated buffer zone at the Syrian border. Much of this pressure will come from the nationalist elements that Erdogan's government depends on for support. And because neither Erdogan nor Prime Minister Binali Yildirim has tied his political career to the migrant deal's success, as Davutoglu did, these demands may become less diplomatic as time goes by.

Lead Analyst: Toba Hellerstein

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