Resilience, Peace and Security

How can we make the EU-Turkey refugee deal work?

A Kurdish refugee woman from the Syrian town of Kobani washes dishes at a refugee camp in the Turkish border town of Suruc, Sanliurfa province February 2, 2015. The Syrian Kurdish militia that drove Islamic State militants from Kobani with the help of U.S.-led air strikes said on Monday the radical Islamist group may now open new fronts against it in northeastern Syria. Redur Xelil, spokesman for the Kurdish YPG militia, said Islamic State forces were collapsing around Kobani, a town at the border with Turkey that became a focal point for the U.S.-led military campaign against Islamic State in Syria.

This is what needs to be done to ensure the EU-Turkey refugee agreement works, according to Guntram B. Wolff. Image: REUTERS/Umit Bektas

Guntram Wolff
Director, Bruegel
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Critics have called the EU-Turkey deal on refugees immoral or even illegal, but it is an improvement on the status quo, which risked a humanitarian disaster in Greece and a collapse of not just the Schengen zone. Now Europe must focus on implementation, offering technical assistance and political stability in Greece, and finding ways to make resettlement work, while insisting on addressing some of the shortcomings of the deal.

In negotiating with Turkey, the EU aimed to reduce the number of refugees arriving in the EU and to break the business model of smugglers. The essential element of the deal is an agreement to return all migrants arriving illegally in Greece to Turkey and accept an equivalent number of Syrian refugees directly from Turkey. In many ways, this arrangement echoes the UK’s approach to the Syrian refugee crisis, which takes refugees straight from Turkey to the UK while refusing entry to those who have crossed Europe.

 The number of asylum applications per 100,000 of the local population, 2015.
Image: BBC

The UNHCR and various NGOs have announced they will no longer work in Greek refugee camps. They consider the return of migrants to Turkey to be an illegal ‘mass expulsion’, Turkey not to be a safe country and the camps in Greece akin to ‘detention centres’. Others criticise the terms of the deal with Turkey. These critiques are justified in part and the EU should take them seriously. In particular, the EU needs to improve the conditions in the camps in Greece and it needs to insist that Turkey treats the returned migrants in accordance with international law.

But the critiques fall short of proposing alternative approaches. Distribution of refugees across the entire EU had been decided in accordance with EU law, which would have made it possible for the EU to deal with large numbers. But many national leaders refused to implement this decision, and few refugees have been resettled. Continuing to accept almost all refugees in Germany, Sweden and Austria had become politically impossible. This could be seen in the border closures in Sweden and Austria and the marked gains of anti-immigration parties in German regional elections.

The status quo before the deal was therefore one of increasingly closed borders in the Balkans, in Central Europe and towards Italy. This would have provoked a de facto shift of the EU’s external borders, with Greece and Italy outside a functioning free movement zone. As a result, a huge number of refugees would have remained in Greece and other countries on the EU’s external borders – a highly unsatisfactory outcome.

The deal is therefore an improvement, but the real issue now is implementation. The priorities are to support Greece, the weakest link in the chain, and to make the resettlement scheme work.

"The deal is an improvement, but the real issue now is implementation."

The EU has promised Greece technical assistance with processing migrants. It is urgent that this support is delivered rapidly, especially as the UNHCR and NGOs wind down their support. The Commission estimates that the practical implementation of the agreement will cost around €280 million over the next six months, which is a surprisingly low amount.

More important is general political stability in Greece. The return of the Troika to Athens to negotiate the terms of financial assistance should go hand in hand with a more generous approach on Greek debt repayments – while remaining tough on all the necessary structural reforms (pension system reform, land registry, public administration and proper competition policy) that Greece urgently needs to undertake. In particular, it is time to soften the requirement to drive up primary surpluses to 3.5%. This goal is objectively too high and it risks destabilising the Greek economy and political system.

"The return of the Troika to Athens to negotiate the terms of financial assistance should go hand in hand with a more generous approach on Greek debt repayments."

In fact, research has shown that there are only very few historical examples during which countries have sustained primary surpluses above 3 percent. Belgium managed this before euro accession and Norway when it used abundant oil revenues to build up a sovereign wealth fund. But Greece starts from a situation in which its GDP has contracted by some 25% and in which the global economy is growing much less vigorously. Moreover, its debt repayments are to be done to external creditors. This is unique as debt is typically not held outside of country. As a consequence, such a large primary surplus would also require a sustained and large current account surplus. A lowering of the primary surplus target makes good economic sense. It is ultimately also in the interest of creditors as it improves political stability in Greece and thereby the prospects of debt repayment. The added tension of the refugee crisis makes this even more important.

Another vital aspect is refugee resettlement, both from Greece and from Turkey. The current resettlement agreement foresees at least 20 000 relocations from Greece to the rest of the EU by mid-May 2016. This is too few given that around 50 000 refugees are currently in Greece, most of which have arrived before the EU-Turkey agreement has entered into force. The process should be accelerated, not least to improve the conditions for those refugees.

Likewise, an effective start of resettlements from Turkish camps is vital if refugees in Turkey are to believe the EU’s claim that they are better off waiting there for asylum. The larger the number of people directly resettled from Turkey to the EU, the more the EU will be effective in undermining smugglers’ attempts to find new roads via Libya or the Caucasus into the EU.

"The initial allocation of 72 000 refugees is certainly too low to undermine the business model of smugglers searching for alternative routes."

Unfortunately, there is still no detail on how resettlement from Turkey is to be implemented. As of Monday 4 April, Germany has begun receiving small numbers of Syrians directly from Turkey, but no further details are known regarding other EU countries. Moreover, the initial allocation of 72 000 refugees is certainly too low to undermine the business model of smugglers searching for alternative routes. EU member states need to fulfil their commitments and should increase them with voluntary relocations offers. Turkish authorities, in turn, would also like to see larger numbers leaving their country given the more than 2 million refugees already in Turkey.

This deal with Turkey is difficult to implement. However, without a deal, the EU’s external borders would have collapsed completely and Greece and other border countries would have been left alone to deal with the refugee crisis. The focus now needs to be on supporting Greece generously and on increasing quickly the number of refugees taken directly from Turkey to undermine the smugglers. Without these actions, the moral compromises made in a deal with Turkey will have been in vain.

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