The presidents of the EU institutions went this week to Greece and Bulgaria to demonstrate EU’s solidarity with them in defending their borders against a sudden flow of illegal migrants from Turkey.
EU’s foreign policy chief and its crisis management commissioner visited Ankara for high-level talks with Turkish government on solving the root causes of the crisis.
“These are extraordinary circumstances. We have just been to the border area and have seen how tense and how difficult the situation is,“ said European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen at the Greek-Turkish border.
“The Greek authorities are facing a very difficult task in containing the situation. This border is not only a Greek border but it is also a European border. And I stand here today as a European at your side. Our first priority is making sure that order is maintained at the Greek external border.”
The Commission on Wednesday (4 March) presented an Action Plan to provide support to Greece in managing the situation at the external borders. Among others, extra border guards, patrol vessels and aircraft will be deployed by the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex). EU will also provide up to € 700 million in financial assistance to Greece for migration management.
It was only about a month ago that the European Court of Auditors (ECA) announced that it would launch an audit of Frontex as to whether it is providing effective support to member states in the implementation of European Integrated Border Management.
As ECA writes in a preview, Frontex’s yearly subsidy from the EU budget has grown considerably, from €137 million in 2015 to €322 million in 2020. At the same time, the Commission has given the agency the green light to recruit 1 000 people by 2020. ECAs performance audit of Frontex happens to come at the right time.
While EU repeats “that Turkey is not an enemy”, it stresses that “people are not means to reach a goal” and cannot be lured or bussed to the border to put pressure on EU and extort concessions from the EU.
High Representative Josep Borrell was more cautious in his talks with the Turkish government, including president Erdogan, and referred to the Turkish answer that “they are not encouraging people moving to the border, but they cannot prevent people from doing so.”
But Borrell left no doubt that increased pressure at the EU – Turkey border and unilateral actions are not bringing any positive answer.
“We have to try to avoid, by all means, that people believe that the border with Europe is open and that just by presenting themselves in front of the border we will allow them to pass by, because this is not the case,” Borrell said. “People can be misled and can make a dangerous travel, affording risk and going into difficulties without any kind of reward.”
In Brussels the Commissioners in charge and the spokespersons, questioned about the legality of the Greek measures, were reluctant to provide straight answers. Greek has temporarily suspended asylum application procedures. It might also have used unproportionate force to push back migrants from crossing the border.
Ylva Johansson, Swedish Commissioner for Home Affairs, assured that there is no contradiction between protecting EU’s borders and respecting international law and human rights. “It’s possible to do both, to honour the right to asylum and the right to protect our borders. Turkey cannot just send as many migrants it wants to Europe.”
The spokespersons have promised that the Commission will soon present its legal assessment of the Greek suspension of asylum procedures. Johansson was of the opinion that a suspension of asylum procedures was legal under certain conditions.
On the issue of excessive force, such as the alleged use of rubber bullets, the Commission declined to give a straight or principled answer. “I cannot judge operational decisions based on what might be fake news on social media,” said Margaritis Schinas, Greek Vice-President for Promoting our European Way of Life.
The chief spokesperson referred to the need to find the right balance. “The Greek authorities are facing a difficult situation but we expect them to handle it in line with legal principles and human rights. We are trying to focus on getting back to normal and find solutions to the crisis.”
Asked by The Brussels Times about the number of illegal migrants at the Greek-Turkish border, Vice-President Schinas said that the number, according to Greek estimates, peaked last weekend at 2,000 but that it had decreased during the EU visit to the border.
As regards the situation in the Greek islands – which Commissioner Johansson described as unacceptable – Schinas said that the limit to what can be done in the islands has been reached. “The new Greek government has enacted a new law which is being implemented to transfer migrant to new centers in the mainland.” However, it will require consensus on both European and national levels.
The lead spokesperson for EU foreign affairs was in no position to clarify the number of migrants at the border but said that the figures were inflated and did not match reality on the ground.
On High Representative Borrell’s visit to Ankara, he said it was part of a process and bigger puzzle. “You cannot expect immediate results. The crisis was in the making before migrants moved to the Greek border and stems from the appalling situation in Idlib in north-west Syria where civilians are targeted.”
“Having talks is important because you convey a clear message in various forms and on different levels. It would be surprising if a solution would be found during one visit. It might take time for the other side to digest the message. We need to tackle the situation in Syria and to return to normal relations with Turkey.”
Turkey has complained about delays in the disbursement of money, in total €6 billion, under the 2016 EU-Turkey agreement (statement) on preventing illegal migration to EU. According to the spokesperson, speeding up the disbursements was not on the table. “The payments follow prescribed procedures and the implementation on the ground.”
However, during his visit in Ankara, Borrell announced additional € 170 million in humanitarian aid to continue assisting vulnerable people in Syria and addressing the humanitarian crisis in Idlib.
“The problem there is not funding, the problem is logistics, the problem is how to reach through the border, in a situation which is in the middle of the war, making every day more difficult to bring help to the people who need it,” Borrell said.
The bottom-line is that the EU stands by the agreement and expects Turkey to do it as well since it is in the common interest of both parties.
The Brussels Times