Refugee summit: EU leaders struggle to agree on 'potentially illegal and impractical' deal with Turkey

German Chancellor Angela Merkel admits there are 'many things to resolve', but expresses 'cautious optimism'

Leo Cendrowicz
Thursday 17 March 2016 22:10 GMT
Refugees at a makeshift camp near the Greek village of Idomeni; thousands are stranded at the Balkan border
Refugees at a makeshift camp near the Greek village of Idomeni; thousands are stranded at the Balkan border (AFP/Getty)

The European Union’s planned refugee deal with Turkey is hanging by a thread as leaders meeting in Brussels struggled to agree on how it would work.

The draft scheme aims to reduce the flow of refugees from war zones such as Syria by sending back to Turkey anyone landing illegally in Greece. But it has come under fire from EU leaders and aid agencies for being potentially illegal and impractical. “I am cautiously optimistic, but frankly more cautious than optimistic,” Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, said before the two-day summit began.

Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, who helped strike last week’s Turkish deal, admitted there were “many things to resolve”, but expressed “cautious optimism”.

The 28 EU leaders are hoping to settle their negotiating stance before meeting Turkey’s Prime Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, over breakfast this morning. Ms Merkel says Turkey holds the key to resolving the crisis as it can seal the main route used by the 1.4 million asylum seekers who have landed in the bloc since January last year.

David Cameron said he welcomed the plans to send migrants back to Turkey, as it would foil people smugglers. He added that because Britain is not in Europe’s passport-free Schengen area, it will not offer visa-free travel to Turks. “We maintain our own immigration policy,” he said.

The deal would mean Turkey takes back all migrants arriving illegally in Greece, while the EU resettles one Syrian refugee for every Syrian readmitted to Turkey. The aim is “to break the business model of the people smugglers” and offer refugees an alternative to risking their lives. The one-for-one plan is a “temporary and extraordinary measure”, to be capped at 72,000 migrants.

At the same time, the EU would double an agreed €3bn fund to help refugees in Turkey and would hasten visa-free travel for Turks in Europe.

Mark Rutte, the Netherlands Prime Minister, claimed the deal could cut the flow of migrants within three or four weeks.

But Dalia Grybauskaite, the Lithuanian President, said the deal risked breaching the EU’s international obligations to accept refugees. “The proposed package is very complicated, will be very difficult to implement and is on the edge of international law,” she said.

She was echoed by Luxembourg’s Prime Minister, Xavier Bettel, who said he had “fears over the legal can’t just put aside the Geneva Convention”.

There are also concerns that Turkey is holding Europe to ransom, knowing how desperate leaders are to strike a deal before the spring weather entices more refugees to cross over. “I can’t accept negotiations which sometimes look like they are a form of blackmail,” said Belgium’s Prime Minister, Charles Michel.

Nicos Anastasiades, the Cypriot President, softened his stance on reopening Ankara’s EU membership talks, having threatened to veto the entire deal over Turkey’s occupation of northern Cyprus. “There are obstacles, but I do hope that…there is going to be a compromise,” he said.

The United Nations said that since the last EU-Turkey summit on 7 March, almost 11,000 people have reached Greece, bringing the total on that route to 144,000 so far this year; at least 96 have died trying.

Q&A: The Turkey deal

European leaders, including Prime Minister David Cameron, are meeting in Brussels to thrash out a refugee swap with Turkey. The deal is fraught with potential pitfalls, with critics lambasting it as immoral, illegal and unworkable. Even European Council President Donald Tusk – who hosts the summit – admitted gloomily “the catalogue of issues to be resolved is long”. Here are some of the questions that could derail the deal:

Q. Is sending refugees back to Turkey illegal?

A. European Union countries are bound by the United Nations 1951 Convention on Refugees, which says all applications have to be properly reviewed, and asylum seekers cannot be returned to a country that does not offer proper protection. This is reiterated in the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights, which also bans collective expulsions. Spanish Foreign Minister José Manuel García-Margallo says the blanket return of refugees to Turkey is “illegal under international law”.

Q. Can Turkey be considered a ‘safe’ country?

A. Only Europeans are currently guaranteed refugee status in Turkey: the EU’s own rules say this does not meet its criteria as a “safe” third country for refugees. While Turkey currently hosts around 2.5 million Syrian refugees, human rights groups say Syrians are often sent back over the border into the war zone. While EU officials say Turkey will offer proper protection to all applicants, there is little evidence that Ankara will actually do it.

Q. Why are the Cypriots blocking the deal?

A. Cyprus President Nikos Anastasiades has pledged to veto the opening of five new “chapters” in Ankara’s EU membership negotiations unless Turkey recognises the island as a single country. Turkey invaded Cyprus in 1974, and the island is still partitioned. Today, Turkey is the only country in the world to officially recognise Northern Cyprus as a sovereign state. This is especially sensitive for Cyprus, which is currently engaged in sensitive reunification talks with Northern Cyprus.

Q. What is in it for the Turks?

A. Turkey wants the EU to grant full visa-free travel for its citizens by the end of June. There is already resistance from EU leaders, wary of headlines suggesting 75 million Turks can visit any time. “There cannot be any concessions on the matter of human rights or the criteria for visa liberalization” French President François Hollande said. There are also technical demands: Turkey has to meet 72 benchmarks for visa-free access. It currently meets 35.

Q. How long can Greece be expected to cope?

A. European Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans says all asylum seekers on Greek islands will get proper hearings, but that assumes Greece’s asylum system is upgraded to cope with thousands of arrivals a week – an questionable scenario. Athens might need hundreds more judges and translators to process the applications. Greece also faces the challenge of removing 8,000 people from the islands in a matter of days.

Q. What if resettlement fails?

A. Last year, the EU agreed to resettle only 22,000 Syrian refugees over two years, a figure the UN called “very low” given that 4.8 million Syrians have fled their homes. Even so, only about 3,400 people have been found homes in 10 European countries. “The swap model with Turkey is a non-scalable fantasy,” says Jacob Funk Kirkegaard, from the Peterson Institute for International Economics. “It defies belief that EU member states will be more willing to accept refugees directly from Turkey.”

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