EU’s dilemma in managing the refugee crisis with Turkey

In today’s informal EU-Turkey meeting EU leaders will discuss with the Turkish Prime Minister Davutoğlu their cooperation on migration. According to EU, even if there is good progress to report on a number of actions in the EU-Turkey Action Plan, the number of illegal entries from Turkey to Greece remains far too high. After the meeting, the EU leaders will convene for a working session to discuss the Schengen agreement and the humanitarian dimension of the refugee crisis.

According to the Commission, decisive and concrete steps need to be taken to stem the flows from Turkey to Greece, to step up returns and readmissions to mainly Turkey and to fight the smuggling business. The crucial decisions will probably be taken at the European Summit on 17 – 18 March.

Preparations for the meeting

In his invitation letter to the EU heads of state or government, European Council President Donald Tusk wrote, after returning from his journey last week along the Balkan route to Turkey, that there are three challenges: to go back to Schengen and end the “wave-through policy of migrants”, to move forward in EUs cooperation with Turkey in order to reduce the number of illegal immigrants from Turkey to Greece and to scale up EUs humanitarian assistance in Greece.

Last week (4 March), the European Commission presented a detailed Roadmap of the concrete steps needed to return order to the management of the EU's external and internal borders. First Vice-President Frans Timmermans said:

"Schengen is one of the most cherished achievements of European integration, and the costs of losing it would be huge.Our aim is to lift all internal border controls as quickly as possible, and by December 2016 at the latest. For this purpose, we need a coordinated European approach to temporary border controls within the framework of the Schengen rules instead of the current patchwork of unilateral decisions.”

He added that “We must also continue to work with Turkey to fully implement the Joint Action Plan and substantially reduce the flow of arrivals."

According to the Commission, temporary border controls not only hamper the free movement of persons, they also come with significant economic costs. The Commission has estimated that a full re-establishment of border controls within the Schengen area would generate immediate direct costs of between €5 and €18 billion annually (or 0.05%-0.13% of GDP).

Ahead of today’s meeting, the Commissioner for migration, Dimitris Avramopoulos, stated at a press conference last week (4 March) that “we cannot have free movement internally if we cannot manage our external borders effectively.”

He was optimistic and said the EU should be able to manage its external borders under a new system by the summer already and that the internal border controls, imposed by 8 member states, should be lifted by the end of this year.

The Commission also announced the first projects under the Facility for Refugees in Turkey, pledging €55 million to address the immediate needs of Syrian school-children in Turkey for access to formal education, and €40 million in humanitarian aid through the World Food Programme (WFP) working in close cooperation with the Turkish Red Crescent.

However, there is still a long way to go in improving the conditions of refugees in Turkey. As recently reported from a conference in Brussels, only 3 per cent of the Syrian refugees living in camps in Turkey have been able to obtain work permits. Another obstacle to refugees finding employing is work quotas – a maximum of 10 % of staff hired by Turkish companies by law can be immigrants.

It was also estimated that more than half of Syrian refugees are children while only 14 per cent of primary school aged children outside the camps are enrolled in school.

In return for its cooperation with EU, Turkey expects among others an agreement on visa-free travel to EU member states. While Turkey has accelerated the reform process, a report adopted last week by the Commission identified a number of measures that Turkey should take in order to fulfil all the requirements of the Visa Liberalisation Roadmap.

Diplomatic balancing act

While EU needs Turkey’s cooperation in managing the refugee crisis and stemming the flow, and is announcing that that it is committed to supporting Turkey, it faces a dilemma in how far it can go in criticizing the Turkish government for its policies.

Only a few days ago the government, following a court order, carried out a forced take-over of the country’s leading independent newspaper. Normally a crack-down on media freedom in a candidate country would have resulted in a sharp condemnation by the Commission – especially as the media situation in situation was already bad.

The Ethical Journalism Network reported last year that “The media (in Turkey) has become just another way to demonstrate faithfulness to the ruling party in order to survive and grow in all sectors of the economy. Investigative reporting is on the verge of extinction. Journalists found themselves again in the courts and jails for professional conduct and the opinions they expressed.”

Besides a reaction on twitter, the official reaction of the EU was limited to a statement by the spokesperson of the European External Action Service (EEAS) saying that “The EU is following closely the reports” and “The EU has repeatedly stressed that Turkey, as a candidate country, needs to respect and promote high democratic standards and practices, including freedom of the media.”

Another issue is the on-going civil war in south-east Turkey that seems to attract little interest in the EU-Turkey discussions. The International New York Times wrote yesterday (6 March) that “A war with Kurdish separatists has turned cities in the south-east into rubble.” From time to time media report about desperate appeals for help and for an end to a policy of appeasement.

The Brussels Times

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