The mood came perilously close to euphoria. The deal reached in Brussels after eight hours of talks offered the first hope for six months that the EU might have a workable plan for addressing the human emergency unfolding on and around its shores. Chancellor Angela Merkel, it seemed, had worked another miracle. The EU Commission President, Jean-Claude Juncker, spoke of a “game changer”.
Re-examined in the cold light of day, however, the outline agreement raises a host of questions, of principle and practice. Let’s start with the practice.
The central idea is that all “irregular migrants”, including Syrians, who arrive on Greek territory from Turkey will be sent back. For every one person returned to Turkey, a Syrian refugee who is recognised as such in Turkey will be resettled in the EU. It is an ingenious scheme, designed to destroy the business model of people-traffickers and break the link – as David Cameron has put it – between boarding a boat and reaching the EU. Those returned to Turkey will be sent to the back of the resettlement queue.
But just imagine the scenes. Even apprehending, let alone returning, would-be asylum-seekers will be far easier said than done. The Greek, Turkish and Italian shores are a smuggler’s paradise. Nato ships may be helping with surveillance, but the numbers needed to screen those arriving will be large, and neither Greece nor Italy has taken kindly to the notion of EU officials policing their sovereign borders.
How is it proposed that hundreds of people, including fit young men, pregnant women and small children, will be embarked on to ships destined for somewhere they desperately do not want to go? Remember those Central European stations last year? Once, force might have been used out of media sight. But mobile phones have changed all that – as has the vigilance of those who doughtily champion the refugees’ cause.
As the Calais Jungle illustrates, many would rather take the chance of a safer, or better, life in the UK tomorrow than more orderly and sanitary living conditions in France today.
For all these reasons it is hard to see how the agreement with Turkey, as currently couched, can work without at least the show (if not the use) of force. Are the EU governments prepared for this? Are they braced for the inevitable outcry? Is Germany? Is Sweden? More to the point, is such coercion what the European Union is about?
The thinking behind the deal must be that, after some people have been demonstratively returned, and equivalent numbers of Syrians have been flown to an EU country – to much media fanfare and warm local receptions – the message will get through, and the market for traffickers will decline. If Merkel’s words of welcome girdled the Earth with such speed last year, perhaps the opposite message can do the same. Hope, though, has an admirable habit of trumping despair, and while there is little purpose in reprising the past, the truth needs to be acknowledged. The proposed new arrangements amount to little more than a belated attempt by the EU to regain control of its own borders.
The refugee crisis is widely seen as a failure of the Schengen agreement. But Schengen, which abolished frontier controls between its signatories, did not fail. What failed was control of the EU’s external border on which the viability of Schengen was predicated. If the external border can be secured, the new internal controls – those fences and border posts – can be dismantled again, as Merkel, for one, so fervently wishes.
Reasserting the external border, however, also means strengthening what has often been criticised, including by human rights champions inside the EU, as “fortress Europe”. Their complaint is that almost no one has been able to enter the EU legally, so even those qualified for asylum must in one way or another circumvent the law. The scheme to resettle Syrians from Turkish camps helps to address this dilemma – but only for Syrians, and only from Turkey.
This is also where principle comes in. If people arrive, albeit having paid traffickers, with a legitimate claim to asylum can the EU (or Greece, or Italy) legally turn them back? The answer from EU officials in the early hours of yesterday was yes, because they had voluntarily left a place of safety. But the argument will surely be open to challenge, both because it would deny all refugees any choice in their destination and because of the political situation in Turkey.
There is a further point relating to Nato. If its assistance is required, in whatever form, to secure the EU’s borders, does this not undermine a distinction that the EU has always insisted upon: between the political and economic Union, and the quite separate military alliance? It is a blurring of lines that Russia, among others, would gleefully seize upon as proof that it was right all along about the EU and Ukraine.
In the end, all these qualms could turn out to be academic. The deal done this week has bought Angela Merkel time – the details will be hammered out only in 10 days’ time, after crucial regional elections in Germany. Thereafter, the price demanded by Turkey could well be rejected as too high. It includes not only more money for refugee facilities, but visa-free travel for Turks to the Schengen zone, to start as early as June. France could join the “new” EU member states in baulking at this, while David Cameron, too, might object to any visa liberalisation in the run-up to the referendum – even though it would affect only Schengen countries, of which the UK is not one.
Even if terms can be agreed, those Syrian refugees who would be resettled from Turkey will need somewhere to go. Which takes us back to the failed EU quotas of last summer. The quest of the refugees for safety; the hopes of so many others for a better life, and the earnings of the traffickers all have a long way left to run.
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