The Unbearable Lightness of bargaining: the EU, Turkey and the refugees

Daniela Irrera

1 April 2016


These are hard times for the EU. Financial instability, terrorism, civil conflicts in the neighbourhood, irregular migration are forcing its institutions and Member states to prove their capacity to tackle security threats in a coordinated and coherent way. One can hardly say the EU has been able to identify efficient and long-term solutions to all such problems and threats.

In the TransCrisis project, aiming at analysing the EU abilities in managing transboundary crises in a legitimate and efficient way, I’m researching the EU migration governance, one of the paradigmatic examples of the EU faulty performance at both the internal and international level.

In the last year, such governance has been marked by controversial EU summits, deployment of search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean by different actors, attempts to save people along the Balkan route and to adjust the radical views of the governments of the member and non-member states in the area.

The Refugee Facility, recently signed with Turkey is the last, paradoxical, vague step.  According to this agreement, whose conditions started to be applied last 20 March, new irregular migrants crossing from Turkey into the Greek islands will be returned to Turkey and for every Syrian being returned to Turkey, another Syrian will be resettled from Turkey to the EU.

This operation will cost €3+3 billion to be paid by EU to Turkey to deliver supplementary humanitarian assistance to refugees in the country. Additionally, it should happen according to EU vulnerability criteria and aims at endeavouring the humanitarian conditions in Syria along the Turkish borders.

Clearly, the EU needs to face the migration crisis, mitigate the quantitative effect of the next arrivals (which are excepted to increase in the coming weeks), tackle human beings trafficking, respect human rights international standards, play the role of peace and stability provider in the neighbourhood, and lower the member states’ radical views and temptation to close the borders. These are not easy tasks to do but one can hardly say the Refugee Facility matches well this long list of objectives, not to say it puts in place a high-level political process.

Up to now, the Facility has not solved any problem. It only has grasped two short-term goals, missed one significant medium-term effect and produced two long-term unintended consequences.

In the immediate, the EU obtains to relocate refugees before they reach and settle in the Balkan area, avoid the need to deal with masses of desperate people, displace the territorial competence of fighting smugglers. This eventually shrinks the Member states’ concerns and (tries to) prevent further anti-European distress (worsened by recent terrorist attacks and national electoral results).

In the medium term, the EU strays from dealing with the root causes of the crisis and playing a more active, collective role in Syria. This was already visible through the fact that military deployment and intervention are under the responsibility of the individual Member states (the anti-French rhetoric of the ISIS declarations demonstrates this by and large). Moreover, the dislocation of the problem to Turkey appears as an extra way to disengage from the conflict and outsource it to others.

Last, in the long-term, the Facility inevitably results as a political trade-off. The aid to, and sustain of, Turkey in this crisis passes through its rehabilitation as a respected political interlocutor at all levels, and the underestimation of the public denunciation of the persecution of journalists and academics and the measures against PKK, perpetrated by the Turkish political regime. In other word, towards an effective legitimation of its behaviour.

This short comment is not intended to send an anti-European message. It is rather a concerned consideration that the EU still remains a big international actor with many unused potentialities. But, in this occasion, it has chosen ‘facilities’ which are an inefficient solution to the problem and, furthermore, a way to underline a lack of intervention and a source of unintended consequences which will be ruthlessly paid in the long-term. Indeed, concern is about the possibility that such ‘temporary’ measure can become a lasting strategy.


About the Author

Daniela Irrera

Daniela Irrera is Associate Professor of Political Science and IR at the University of Catania, where she teaches International Politics and Global civil society.

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