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Tensions between Berlin and Ankara threaten EU-Turkey migrant deal

Louisa Gouliamaki, AFP | Piles of life jackets left by refugees who arrived to the island of Lesbos lie at a dump on March 15, 2017 almost a year after an EU-Turkey deal

Signed a year ago to halt the influx of migrants into Europe, a EU-Turkey deal now appears on shaky ground as Turkish ministers threaten to scrap it following diplomatic tensions between Germany and Turkey.


Since Ankara and Brussels forged the controversial migrant deal in March 2016, many have hailed it a success for substantially lessening the flow of migrants, drastically reducing the number of migrant deaths in the Mediterranean Sea and bringing European borders back under control.

Turkey took on the role of the EU’s migrant gatekeeper after it agreed to control the mass influx of migrants in exchange for €6 billion and a promise to fast-track European Union membership talks and visa-free travel for its nationals.

But, one year on, there is a very real possibility the deal could unravel, the chief architect of the deal, Gerald Knaus, head of the European Stability Initiative, told Germany’s daily Deutsche Welle (DW).

Ankara "irrational"

“It would be irrational to shut it down, but we’ve heard a few irrational things from Ankara recently, so it is not impossible that something that would be bad for Turkey in this escalating unacceptable rhetoric might also claim the refugee agreement as a victim”, he said.

The fierce diplomatic row that continues to unfold between Berlin and Ankara over Turkish referendum campaign rallies in Germany has turned the deal into something of a political pawn.

Turkish interior minister Suleyman Soylu said last Friday that his country would "blow the mind" of Europe and renege on the deal by sending 15,000 Syrian refugees a month to Europe.

His threat added to earlier comments by Turkey’s deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus who warned a week ago that, “we will review the migrant deal if necessary”.

Speaking to FRANCE 24, Jorgen Carling, research professor at the Peace Research Institute in Oslo, said that Ankara was using immigration as a “bargaining chip” in relation with the EU is nothing new.

“We have recently seen Morocco make similar threats as a response to a European statement on the occupation of Western Sahara,” he said. He also added that Turkey would gain little if it dumped the migrant deal.

EU officials want to believe that despite Turkish-German diplomatic tensions, the immigrant deal will stay operational.

“Everyone in Turkey knows that fundamentally it is in Turkey’s interests to keep it alive,” Knaus told newspaper Deutsche Welle.

No benefit to Turkey

But the Turkish government has complained it has not received most of the €6 billion promised by the EU, and bristles over the delays to visa-free travel for its citizens.
Professor Andrew Geddes, Director of the Migration Policy Centre at the European University Institute in Italy, told FRANCE 24 that despite the obvious benefits for Turkey, the “chances of visa-free travel for Turkish nationals in the EU have receded”, putting additional pressure on the deal.

Role of toxic rhetoric

In its 2016-2017 annual report “The State of the world's human rights”, Amnesty International warned against the impact of inflammatory political rhetoric targeting migrants. It forecasts that 2017 will see “a debilitating absence of human rights leadership” and that current conditions will unlikely make it easier to keep the deal on track.

If the ‘Yes’ vote wins in the country's upcoming constitutional referendum then President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will have legitimate backing to increase his power.

What he may do is a worrying prospect for the EU.

Despite what many think, there are real fears he might renege on the immigration deal.

“One worrying scenario is that if Turkey becomes a less reliable buffer, European leaders will have an incentive to let Greece play that role,” Professor Geddes told FRANCE 24.

Humanitarian groups say that scenario would be catastrophic for the migrants stranded in Greece, where refugee camps like Moira on the island of Lesbos have been described as “open air prisons”.

Since the deal was implemented, 918 people have been sent back to Turkey by the Greek authorities, a very small number when compared to the tens of thousands waiting in the horrendously overcrowded camps in Greece.

A Libya-EU deal?

While the closure of the Balkan route via the Aegean has slowed the arrival of migrants, the number of migrants arriving in Italy has continued to increase dramatically. The number of boat arrivals in Italy so far this month is up by 50% on the same period last year, according to EU data.

Interior ministers from ten European and North African countries met in Rome on Monday to discuss rolling out a second migrant deal, this one between the EU and Libya. The declaration of intent which was released after their meeting was limited to promising increased coordination and information sharing.

A deal with Libya, however, would present the EU with even more challenges than those posed by Turkey given that power in the country is split between a UN-backed national unity government in Tripoli - the elected parliament of Tobrouk in the eastern part of the country - and the Libyan National Army of General Khalifa Haftar.

Professor Carling believes that whether the Turkey-EU deal collapses or not, the bloc leaders should be prepared and plan for a less cooperative Turkey.

“European leaders should be taking more responsibility in the political power game of immigration management,” he said.

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