Does the EU no longer trust Turkey with the refugee crisis? Germany’s "Bild" newspaper reports that other plans are secretly in the making; a claim that the German government denies.
On Monday, the German mass circulation "Bild" newspaper reported that several Greek islands in the Aegean are being turned into central registration sites for stranded refugees, and that ships will no longer take refugees to the Greek mainland in order to stop the uncontrolled flow of migrants into the EU. In other words, asylum seekers will be kept on the islands; those refused asylum would then be deported directly to their home countries. The billions of euros in aid promised to Turkey as the EU's partner in the refugee crisis would then be transferred to Athens instead.
The paper reported that several EU states are considering this alternative plan in the event that the EU's refugee deal with Ankara collapses. The story included statements from unnamed high-ranking politicians. "Bild" is known for having excellent contacts within the German government.
Hasty government denial
The German government, however, was quick to deny the story. "There are no grounds to doubt the further implementation of the current deal," said a spokesman for Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière. The source added that the German government is doing everything it can to fulfill its obligations. "Therefore, there is no question of an alternative agreement," the ministry said.
The EU Commission in Brussels said it does not comment on reports in the press. A spokeswoman did refer, however, to comments EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker made at the weekend. "We have negotiated with the Turkish government, we have the word of the Turkish government, and we will continue to work with the Turkish government."
Concerns following Davutoglu's resignation
There are growing concerns in the EU that the agreement with Turkey that came into effect in March will not remain in effect long term. Under the terms of the deal, Turkey must take back illegal immigrants stranded in Greece. To assist with this, Turkey is receiving 3 billion euros from the EU. But the payments are progressing slowly, much to Ankara's frustration. Turkey could also be granted visa-free travel in the EU as part of the deal. At the same time, the EU views the autocratic policies of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan with a great deal of skepticism.
Erdogan recently forced the resignation of his Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, the very man the EU trusted to guarantee the refugee deal. German Chancellor Angela Merkel had built up a solid relationship with Davutoglu; it would not come as a surprise, then, if EU leaders were mulling alternatives to the deal with Turkey.
Wellmann: Considering alternatives is normal
"I can't understand what all the fuss is about," CDU foreign policy expert Hans-Georg Wellmann told DW. "It seem pretty clear: We can't completely and utterly rely on Turkey. It's normal to consider alternatives." He added that even before the deal with Ankara, the EU had been creating hotspots for refugee registration in Greece and Turkey, and looking for its own ways to reduce the amount of illegal immigration.
The number of new arrivals is going down. On Monday, Merkel's spokesman Steffen Seibert said that around 16,000 refugees were registered in Germany in April; in the previous month, that number was close to 20,600. However, the reason for the drop in numbers has mainly to do with the fact that the Balkan route is closed to people coming from Syria or Iraq.
Austria: Faymann gives up
The surprise resignation of Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann shows just how much the refugee crisis continues to affect politics among EU member states. His coalition of Social Democrats and conservatives had initially allowed refugees to pass freely through Austria before doing an total about-face and largely closing the country's borders. Despite this, the right-wing populist Freedom Party dominated first-round presidential elections in April. Faymann has now accepted the consequences and stepped down..