EU hopes to shut Turkish door on migrants

  • 08/03/2016

By Alastair Macdonald

A European Union draft deal with Turkey to stop migrants reaching Greece introduces a harder edge of coercion to what critics have derided as a hitherto feeble EU response to a crisis tearing it apart.

Just last week, some saw European Council President Donald Tusk running short on ideas when he urged would-be migrants: "Do not come to Europe." UKIP, a party campaigning to take Britain out of the EU at a June referendum, said his "weak plea" was "too little too late to stop the vast migrant flow into Europe".

Yet what Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu called a "game-changing" plan for Turkey to forcibly take back not only economic migrants who make it to Greek islands off its coast but even refugees from Syria, who will then suffer disadvantages, is the strongest move yet to change the calculus of migration.

If the plan is agreed, and if it works, taking to a boat from a Turkish beach at the cost of life savings to a smuggler -- and possibly of life itself -- would no longer be a ticket to a better life in Germany but a rapid round trip to Turkey. There, those returned would be, in the words of EU officials, "at the back of the line" for legal asylum and resettlement in Europe.

The United Nations refugee agency warned that Europe must not close its door to those in need, as civil war in Syria has left millions homeless and afraid. Human rights groups have been scathing about a Europe preaching democracy but cutting a deal with a Turkish government accused of persecuting opponents.

Many are concerned about a quickfire process of deporting everyone back to Turkey with little regard for individuals.

But 1.2 million people reached the EU last year to claim asylum amid chaotic scenes on beaches and on the long trek north from Greece through the Balkans. It has set EU states at odds, shut long-uncontrolled borders and fuelled nationalist sentiment among voters across the bloc. Leaders' patience is thin.

"We need to break the link between getting in a boat and getting settlement in Europe," they said after Monday's summit (local time).

There are clear gains for Greece, where Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras has warned of becoming a "warehouse of souls" as more than 30,000 migrants have become stranded there since its northern neighbours began closing their borders. The downside could be ugly scenes on the islands off Turkey.

For German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who worked closely on the deal with Davutoglu before the summit, a dramatic sign of an imminent end to the crisis could be a boost in regional elections on Sunday that will, in part, pass judgment on her decision last summer to open Germany's doors to Syrians.

Turkey is seeking in return about €6 billion to help improve the lives of refugees over the next three years -- twice as much as a two-year deal with the EU struck in November, as well as the opening of new "chapters" in its long-stalled negotiation to join the European Union.

France, sceptical of Turkey ever joining the EU, is resistant to a rapid easing of visa requirements for Turkey.

French President Francois Hollande said it would still have to meet 72 criteria -- among them modernising Turkish identity documents.

Britain, too, where Prime Minister David Cameron is campaigning to persuade voters to back continued EU membership on June 23, is wary of newspaper headlines suggesting 75 million Turks may soon be travelling more easily around Europe, even if Britain is outside the Schengen visa area they could access.

And central and eastern European states, long opposed to EU efforts to force them to take in a share of refugees, are concerned about elements of the deal that could see more calls for asylum-seekers to be resettled around the bloc.

However, the lure of an end to the crisis -- at least inside Europe -- may prove a compelling argument despite the critics.