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EU-Turkey refugee deal: Will the fragile agreement hold?

Deger Akal
February 3, 2020

In 2016, Ankara and Brussels signed a refugee agreement designed to stem the flow of illegal entries into the EU via Turkey. Now, both sides are unhappy with the deal, but a revision looks difficult.

Syrian refugees who crossed the Evros river, the natural border between Greece and Turkey
Image: Reuters/A. Konstantinidis

Initially, the so-called refugee deal between the EU and Turkey seemed to work pretty well. The number of refugees entering the EU — especially Greece — via Turkey dropped dramatically because the Turks effectively closed the border.

Yet, Ankara's ambitious approach soon waned. Turkey claimed it was because the EU had failed to deliver funds promised to them, even threatening to blow up the deal.

Read more: Turkey-Libya maritime deal triggers Mediterranean tensions

But doubts about the deal's effectiveness soon began to spread in the EU, too. Some European leaders went so far as to say that Brussels had opened itself up to "blackmail." Still, a competing concern among heads of state and government across Europe was that if the deal were to collapse, refugee numbers could once again rise, further fueling far-right and populist movements across the continent.

The chancellor makes concessions as she looks ahead

Germany will assume the rotating EU Council Presidency in July 2020. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is championing an extension of the EU-Turkey pact, and will likely use the six-month presidency as a lever to that end.

Angela Merkel meeting Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Istanbul
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/A. Deeb

When Merkel met Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara in January, she thanked him for taking in millions of Syrian refugees and praised the work of the Turkish government. Moreover, she promised further financial assistance — the original March 2016 deal was tied to the promise that the EU would pay Turkey €6 billion ($6.7 billion) over the course of several years to help Ankara care for Syrian refugees.

Read more: Opinion: Merkel, Erdogan and a Faustian refugee bargain

"Clearly, the most important statement delivered by Merkel in Ankara was the prospect of continuing to provide Turkey with massive amounts of financial assistance for refugees," according to Gerard Knaus, who is seen as one of the deal's key architects. "If financial support cannot be guaranteed, the deal will be endangered," says the migration researcher.

'The asylum system is broken'

But Knaus sees even more urgent problems that could threaten the deal if left unresolved. "The EU is incapable of processing asylum applications in a humane and just fashion on the Greek isles. In principle, the asylum system is broken. Currently, the chances of [refugees refused EU asylum] being sent back to Turkey are zero." Knaus says if the EU fails to resolve that issue the deal will soon breakdown.

Gerald Knaus in a DW interview
The architect of the deal, Gerald Knaus, warns there is no chance of it succeeding without financial supportImage: DW

The German government has invested a lot of time in negotiations with EU decision-makers in its effort to extend the current deal between Brussels and Ankara. Those negotiations — with Croatia, which currently holds the EU Council Presidency; High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell; and Olivier Varhelyi, the EU's expansion commissioner — have taken place behind the scenes in Berlin.

Read more: Beyond capacity, Greek island refugee camps get more packed

Laura Batalla, secretary-general of the European Parliament Turkey Forum, points out that consensus among EU member states will be key. "The EU should continue to provide financial assistance for Syrian refugees (…) There continues to be a need to further invest in support for Syrian refugees' cost of living, thus strengthening social cohesion. There seems to be enough goodwill there. Both Turkey and the EU are in favor of a continuation."

Strained relations

Panu Poutvaara of the Ifo Institute for Economic Research, on the other hand, is less convinced the deal will survive. "Turkey embarked on its most recent military operation without asking its NATO partners for backing. The operation increased the number of refugees. In that context, one cannot reasonably expect the EU to give Turkey a blank check. In the event that the EU decides to continue its cooperation with Turkey, it should demand such operations not be repeated."

Turkish soldiers waiting to be deployed
Turkey's military operation in northern Syria was criticized by European NATO alliesImage: picture-alliance/dpa/A. Alkharboutli

Then, there is the fundamental question of whether continued cooperation on the refugee front is even possible in light of today's political climate. The erosion of democracy and basic human rights in Turkey and its internationally condemned military incursion into northern Syria have weighed heavy on relations between Ankara, Brussels and other EU member states.

Special summit on February 20

But another factor that will determine whether Merkel's planned extension will come to fruition is money. Currently, EU member states are negotiating the EU's budget for the next seven years.

Read more: Greece plans barrier to stop migrants in Aegean Sea

Negotiations have been made more difficult by the United Kingdom's exit from the bloc, as it will no longer be contributing funds to EU coffers. In an effort to achieve consensus among heads of state and government, Charles Michel, the president of the European Council, has scheduled a special summit to take place in Brussels on February 20. One item on the summit agenda: Whether more billions will be funneled into cooperation with Turkey in dealing with the refugee problem.