Leaders from Europe and Turkey are meeting in Brussels on March 17-18 in a determined attempt to resolve the nearly year-old migration crisis. With the Western Balkan migration route now officially closed and with migrants filling up makeshift camps in Greece, the pressure is on Europe's leaders to find a solution. The basis for talks is an ambitious plan agreed to 10 days ago between the leaders of Turkey, Germany and the Netherlands. The scheme could reduce migration from the Middle East to Europe, but it will have to overcome dissent from some European leaders and questions about its legality.
The deal on the table, proposed by Turkey, rests on a basic and powerful premise: Migration to Europe will decline if migrants have fewer chances to enter Europe through Greece. At the moment, migrants — roughly half of whom are Syrians fleeing a war zone and thus are the most likely to receive asylum — are risking their lives to cross the narrow straits from Turkey to Greece on flimsy inflatable boats in the hopes of finding a better life in Europe (particularly in Germany). The Turkish plan would create a rule that any migrants arriving in Europe from Turkey must be returned to Turkey, regardless of their nationality. Of course, Turkey is already hosting almost 3 million migrants itself and does not want to receive many more. Under the second part of the deal, for every Syrian returned to Turkey, another would be dispatched from Turkey to Europe — Iraqis and Afghans may also be included. Meanwhile, Turkey is trying to swiftly sign agreements with other source countries, including Eritrea and Iran, to return those deemed economic migrants.
Under this plan, a Syrian refugee would have more hope of getting to Europe by waiting patiently in Turkey than by attempting the risky trip to Greece. Hope of a better life was what drove more than a million refugees across the straits in 2015; Turkey's plan would make it worthwhile for refugees to stay in Turkey, ultimately curtailing migration and making the number of immigrants arriving in Europe more manageable.
The plan, however, may not adequately meet the demands of a complex situation. The deal has been attacked from all sides, and many of its underlying assumptions are dubious. In fact, its very legality has been questioned. Before receiving migrants back from Europe, Turkey would have to prove that it is a safe host country for refugees by EU standards, which requires a number of administrative steps. Moreover, forcibly returning migrants from Greece could violate international law, which stipulates that asylum seekers must be given a fair hearing before being removed from the country. Greece's judicial processes are far from the most efficient in Europe, and speeding up the asylum process to the desired one-week period (it currently takes much longer) will be a challenge. For the plan to work, speed is essential. For potential migrants to determine that making the crossing to Greece would be futile, they must see that others who have attempted the journey have been quickly returned. Legal and procedural hindrances to removal could undercut the entire scheme.
Beyond this basic issue, various European actors are voicing an array of objections to the deal. Some Eastern European countries are extremely reluctant to consider a plan that commits them to receiving new migrants and dispersing them across Europe. A similar quota system was proposed and largely ignored back in 2015, when EU countries rejected an open-ended system that could force them to accept an infinite number of migrants. To overcome these objections or to form a coalition of willing EU states, the number of arrivals would have to drop sharply — meaning the plan might need to be working to limit migration before countries are willing to sign up for it.
The plan also raises serious humanitarian concerns. Several countries, led by Spain, question the humaneness of forcefully returning asylum seekers to Turkey. Many in the European Union doubt that Turkey will make the necessary reforms to make life easier for migrants. Other nations are more concerned about what Turkey wants in return, especially visa-free travel in Europe. The most vehement objection to Turkey's demand comes from Cyprus, a small country that nonetheless exerts enormous influence on Europe's relationship with Turkey. Even in the EU system, which requires countries to make decisions unanimously, small countries rarely have so much power to shape policy. But the issue is an existential one for Cyprus. The island was cut in two following a Turkish invasion in 1974. Europe's relationship with Turkey is so important to Cyprus that its leaders are willing to stand up to their much larger European peers.
In this case, however, Cyprus has allies in criticizing the plan. France, Austria and some parties in Germany (particularly the Christian Social Union in Bavaria, a party linked to German Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union) all oppose granting Turkish citizens visa-free travel through Europe. Their resistance comes as little surprise. Moves to bring Turkey closer to European accession are never popular, especially now that the Turkish administration is becoming increasingly authoritarian.
The two-day meeting between the European Union and Turkey is meant to solve an urgent problem, but the proposal is deeply flawed. It is highly unlikely that the deal thrashed out by the three leaders 10 days ago will survive these talks intact. Some aspects will be altered or scrapped, while others will remain in place. In the meantime, migrants continue to arrive on Greek beaches, and the threat of a humanitarian crisis in Greece is growing. The problem may even spread if migrants start taking new routes into Europe through Italy or the east. Europe's leaders are trying to negotiate a solution on a short timeline. On May 12, the Schengen evaluation process will issue a report on Greece's progress on securing the Schengen area's external borders. And if European and Turkish leaders cannot agree to a plan by May, the Schengen rules may face further suspensions.