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Europe

Opinion: EU-Turkey summit is just a first step

The distribution of refugees and migrants within the EU doesn't seem to be working. So instead, the EU is relying on a closure of the borders - and is paying Turkey a high price for its help, says Bernd Riegert.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel initiated the change in refugee policy a while ago. It has taken place in a series of small steps, perhaps just in time to avert disaster in the three federal state elections this coming Sunday. Refugees and migrants, whom the Chancellor initially welcomed last autumn, saying there would be no limit on numbers, are now supposed to remain in Greece - or, better still, in Turkey. There is enough accommodation in Greece, the Chancellor now says; and there's no need to make the dangerous crossing of the Aegean, either.

Donald Tusk

European Council President Donald Tusk will chair Monday's talks

The border between Greece and Macedonia is almost completely sealed off. "We are closing the Balkan route," was how Donald Tusk, the President of the European Council, described this course of action - certainly after speaking to the Chancellor first. He immediately followed this statement with an appeal to refugees to please stay at home. The long-awaited "noticeable" reduction in refugee numbers predicted by Angela Merkel is now taking place. Austria and the Balkan countries have made this possible by imposing an upper limit - without regard for Greece.

Waving people away, not through

The Chancellor can't be too unhappy about it, even if she is still castigating their actions as unilateral. She refuses to accept an upper limit for Germany, because the phrase is politically fraught and she doesn't want to lose face. De facto, though, the upper limit has already been in place for some time, because Berlin is also refusing to circumvent the Balkan states altogether and bring refugees directly to Germany.

The policy of waving people through has now become a policy of waving them away. Refugees and migrants will now, insofar as it is possible, be pushed back to the EU's external borders. That's quite a turnaround.

Last autumn, Angela Merkel and the French president François Hollande declared the EU's asylum rules "obsolete," because these rules, conceived some years ago in Dublin, no longer worked. Now the rule will again apply: the country in which a migrant first enters the EU will be responsible for them. The turnaround has been made. Greece - and Italy, which is not being mentioned much as of yet - will have to take in, process, deport or turn away all the refugees and migrants that arrive on their shores. To prevent Greece from sinking into chaos, the country will once again receive financial and organizational aid from the EU.

Final trump card: Turkey

Above all, though, the problem is finally to be displaced from Greece to Turkey. The EU has made far-reaching concessions to persuade Turkey preferably not to let refugees and migrants travel on at all, and certainly to take back a large number of unwanted persons from Greece.

The price Turkey can demand for this is high: money, visa exemption, EU membership, and silence over human rights abuses. The Turks know that, when it comes to getting on top of the refugee crisis, they are the Chancellor's last resort. The pragmatic Merkel realized long ago that there will be no "European solution." She's now striving to achieve a "Turkish" solution. Turkey will be declared a "safe state" for refugees and migrants, which would theoretically make any flight to EU territory illegal.

No quick solution for Idomeni

It is, however, unclear whether Turkey will make concessions in advance, without knowing whether the quarrelling EU states will ever take contingents of refugees directly from Turkey - legally, that is, without them having to run the gauntlet through the Balkans. This EU summit is also unlikely to result in any pledges to take contingents. The measures Turkey will agree to on Monday will only have an effect in the weeks and months to come. It will take several more sessions to push through the concept of discouraging, stopping and, where necessary, redistributing refugees.

Griechenland Idomeni by Night All eyes on the border

Thousands of migrants are stuck in Idomeni village on the Greece-Macedonia border

From this point of view, Monday will not be a "fateful summit" for either the Chancellor or the European Union. It will, however, decide the fate of the unfortunate people currently stuck at the fence on the Macedonian border or in refugee camps in Greece. They are the first victims of the turnaround in refugee policy. How many will follow? There are more arriving every day.

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