Last week’s informal EU-Turkey meeting on the refugee crisis resulted in a statement on principles. While there is general agreement about the need to break the business model of the smugglers, the details on how to achieve this are supposed to be worked out for the European Summit this week (17 – 18 March).
A controversial point in the statement concerns returning illegal migrants from Greece to Turkey and resettling Syrian refugees from Turkey to the EU member states. The statement says that “for every Syrian readmitted by Turkey from Greek islands, another Syrian will be resettled from Turkey to the EU Member States”.
In return for Turkish cooperation in managing the refugee crisis, EU agreed in principle to accelerate the implementation of the visa liberalization roadmap with all Member States with a view to lifting the visa requirements for Turkish citizens at the latest by the end of June 2016.
EU will also prepare for a decision on the opening of five new chapters in the accession negotiations with Turkey as soon as possible. Last but not the least EU also agreed to double the “initially” allocated 3 billion euros in assistance for the refugees in Turkey.
In the current situation the general interpretation of the outcome of the meeting last week is that EU needs Turkey more than the other way around. The agreement is seen by some observers as surrender to Turkish blackmail. In a surprise move the Turkish prime minister met privately in the evening before the meeting with the German chancellor and put new proposals on the table.
This did not go well with other EU leaders. Is EU prepared to do what it takes to satisfy the Turkish demands and to keep a low profile on Turkish violations of sacred EU values such as freedom of media and expression?
The provocative crackdown on Turkish media just days before the meeting resulted in weak EU protests. The statement mentions in passing that “the EU Heads of State or Government also discussed with the Turkish Prime Minister the situation of the media in Turkey.” The deteriorating situation in south-east Turkey, where a civil war with the Kurds is raging, did not deserve any note.
After intensive discussions the Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, European Council President Donald Tusk and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker met for a brief press conference after midnight on 8 March and demonstrated a united façade for the few journalists they had kept waiting.
The Turkish Prime Minister had reason to be satisfied. He praised the “game-changing” agreement which had been reached after “efficient work and in a cooperative spirit, as if the two sides had been working in “one negotiating team”. In his view, the agreement is part of a package deal on improving EU-Turkey relations. His European interlocutors seemed to agree with him and greeted the agreement as a “breakthrough”.
Asked by a journalist about the media situation, Davutoglu did his best to explain that the forced take-over of the leading opposition newspaper Zaman was a purely judicial case and not any matter of political interference. “The courts will decide. No-one can accuse Turkey of not having freedom of expression,” he said. “Freedom of speech is our common value.”
If this convinced anyone in the audience can be doubted. The Turkish judiciary is not known for its independence – as has been pointed out in the Commission’s own reports on Turkey’s accession process.
Following the take-over, the newspaper started publishing pro-government articles. Judging by President Donald Tusk’s comment, freedom of speech is not an issue in the migration agreement with Turkey and will be assessed in the accession process if and when it will be restarted.
President Jean-Claude Juncker was asked whether returning refugees from Greece to Turkey (without any individual assessment of their asylum applications) would be legal. He assured that it would and referred to articles 33 and 38 in the Asylum Procedures Directive (2013/32/EU) on common standards of safeguards and guarantees to access a fair and efficient asylum procedure.
However, this presupposes that Turkey can be considered a safe third country. International New York Times reported (9 March) that the UN refugee agency stated that “blanket return of foreigners to a third country is not consistent with European and international law”. Human Rights Watch questioned how the mass returns to Turkey will work.
So will the “the native hue of resolution, (be) sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought” on tomorrow’s European Summit?
In the meantime, according to the Commission, the number of migrants in Greece is currently estimated at around 45,000 people, with 12,000 of them stuck in dreadful conditions in Idomeni next to the Macedonian border.
The Brussels Times