The proposed “one in, one out” deal that would return thousands of migrants to Turkey from Greece is being hailed as a "breakthrough” by Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel. But it’s a breakthrough with damaging knock-on effects – including the resurrection of "Fortress Europe".
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For all the ballyhoo surrounding Europe’s would-be refugee swap with Turkey, the emerging deal is a blow to the jugular of Merkel’s hopes of keeping populists and xenophobes from wrecking the foundations of European unity.
To be sure, the outline agreement reached this week in Brussels is a work in progress. There’s lots of fine print still to be ironed out.
But whatever the agreement's final shape, it promises to slam shut Merkel’s “open door” to those fleeing imminent danger and destitution.
In the longer term, it is likely to usher in a more insular EU, one in which the passport-free travel zone known as Schengen may be salvaged – but without any guarantees that it would withstand a future bout of adversity.
The deal, in other words, is Europe cutting off its nose to spite its face: The solution is likely to cause greater lasting damage than the immediate emergency it’s meant to address.
EU leaders, cognizant of the bind they are in, are juggling the clashing imperatives of humanitarian decency and political expediency.
They are framing the proposal as a lesser-of-several-evils solution to a migration maelstrom that shows few signs of abating.
If stopping people from making perilous journeys across the Aegean Sea – and thwarting the smugglers who act as their enablers – means treading more lightly with an autocratic Turkish leader who openly flouts Europe’s democratic values, then so be it, runs the unspoken argument.
“The days of irregular migration are over,” the president of the European Council, Donald Tusk, declared optimistically shortly after the conclusion of this week’s summit in Brussels.
But human rights groups and others are a lot more leery. They are raising red flags about both the legality and feasibility of a one-for-one swap.
The UNHCR suggests the “blanket terms” of the sketchy deal would violate international human rights laws. It points to the prohibition on the “collective expulsion of foreigners” in the European Convention on Human Rights.
Amnesty International, for its part, objects to the proposed designation of Turkey as a “safe country”, noting that Turkish authorities have forcibly returned refugees to Syria.
The deal raises the prospect of a wholesale transfer of thousands of migrants – there are 30,000 in Greece alone, some 13,000 of whom are stranded on its northern border with Macedonia - unable to pass through since the latter joined its western Balkan neighbours in halting refugee crossings.
These refugees, once back in Turkey, would have to re-join the asylum queue – at the very end.
It is unclear whether refugees who already have asylum applications in process in Greece would also be subject to deportation. But the sweeping terms of the deal imply that this may, indeed, be the case.
The hope is that this would relieve Greece, already reeling under painful austerity and stretched to breaking point, of its refugee bottleneck.
The refugees sent back to Turkey would join the estimated 2.7 million already on Turkish soil. A tiny fraction of these displaced people would then be eligible for direct resettlement in Europe – bypassing a treacherous sea journey.
But even if this scheme were to go to plan, it would still leave millions of migrants in Turkey and its neighbours, with ambitions and hopes of their own.
Europe is promising to double its aid to Turkey to around $6 billion to help Turkey provide incentives for migrants on its soil to stay put – namely by offering job opportunities and schooling for their children.
Some observers say the arrangement boils down to Turkey taking back more migrants in return for Europe keeping mum – or at least not kicking up as much as a fuss – about Turkey’s alleged human rights violations and recent crackdown on a free press.
Others are blunter – saying it amounts to outsourcing Europe’s migrants to Turkey. Under the deal, Turkey would be deemed a “safe country”, allowing Europe to send refugees its way without violating international law banning any transfer that might put a refugee in harm’s way.
“It’s no solution to transform Turkey into a refugee prison operated by Warder [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan, who can blackmail Europe by keeping the key to the prison in his pocket,” said Sahra Wagenknecht, the co-leader of Linke, a left-leaning German opposition party.
Even putting aside the dubious morality of cutting deals with Erdogan, there’s also the question of Europe’s political will to live up to its side of the bargain.
Eastern European countries – notable among them members of the so-called Visegrad group comprised of Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland – have outright rejected taking on any refugees under the migrant resettlement scheme unveiled by EU leaders last September.
That plan called for resettling 160,000 migrants throughout the bloc’s members, with each country accepting a certain number based on criteria such as population, GDP growth and unemployment.
But it has been a signal failure – only a few hundred of the 160,000 have been resettled to date, with some countries’ leaders, abetted by far-right populist scaremongers, casting the scheme as an open invitation to an "Arab invasion" of Christian lands.
All of Europe complicit
Czech President Milos Zeman offered a chilling window into this mindset: "The Islamic refugees are bringing sharia (Islamic law) into our country,” Zeman said. “That means unfaithful women will be stoned, thieves will have their hands chopped off and our beautiful girls will be forced to wear the burqa."
But even as the Eastern countries have been demonised as Europe’s worst migrant-bashers – which they are – the sad reality is that Western European countries are complicit in the anti-immigrant animus.
France’s prime minister, Manuel Valls, has taken an especially hard line in the wake of the November 13 terror attacks, one that has put him on a collision course with Merkel, the leader of France’s stalwart European ally.
He recently told Germany’s Sueddeutsche Zeitung newspaper that “we cannot accommodate any more refugees in Europe, that’s not possible”.
Valls added at another point: “France never said, ‘Come to France’.”
Even Belgium saw a need to erect a fence on its southern border with France, as a preventive measure against a feared wave of illegal refugees from the Calais migrant camp, part of which was being razed by French authorities.
Given the refusal of Eastern Europeans to take on migrants, any refugees removed from Turkey under this deal would have to be allocated among a small coalition of willing EU members, as some have referred to it.
Deterrence, over humanity
France – a country which only a tiny fraction of migrants choose as a preferred destination – has consented to take 30,000 refugees over two years. Germany and Sweden would probably absorb a good share as well.
But this deal is not about humanity, or high-minded European ideals. Those fell by the wayside long ago as Europe failed to rise to the challenge of this human influx. It's now about staving off a worst-case scenario – the total collapse of Schengen – here and now.
The emphasis is on sending a categorical message to migrants contemplating a perilous sea crossing: don't even think about it.
At the same time, it's about lowering the boom on the business model of human smugglers.
But the same problem will continue to fester in the absence of viable ways for those in desperate situations to seek safe haven in Europe without risking their lives.
To truly break the business model of smugglers, Europe should marshal its energies towards providing legal pathways to Europe for the human waves fleeing war and poverty.
Though she won’t say it publicly, Merkel’s vision of an open, compassionate Europe stands to be the biggest loser in this messy, miserable arrangement.
In the short term, she may succeed in staunching the flow of migrants into Germany – a key demand of political opponents who have been baying for blood.
But the clampdown is also a curtain call for her once-acclaimed open-door policy, one based on a deep conviction that closing borders is antithetical to everything Europe stands for.
Speaking before a packed session of the German parliament last October, ahead of an EU summit on the migrant crisis, Merkel appealed for solidarity.
“It’s no exaggeration to see this task as a historic test for Europe,” she said, adding that to “slam the door ... is an illusion in the internet age of the 21st century”.
By failing its refugees, Europe should harbour few illusions that it’s doing anything other than failing itself.