The Geopolitics of Europe has been seriously shaken since when in April last year refugees and other migrants started to cross en masse the external borders of the so called Schengen area. The last episode of the migration drama, the agreement concluded on 18 March 2016  between the leaders of the EU and Turkish prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu, might seriously reshape the relationship between the Union and Turkey, between Turkey and Greece, and possibly even between Turkey and the Republic of Cyprus.

It took three meetings of the European Council with the Turkish prime minister to finalize a deal promoted by Chancellor Angela Merkel in November 2015 to slow the flow of refugees entering the EU through the ‘Balkan road’ from Turkey to Germany: Turkey would help keep migrants from crossing to Greece; the EU in exchange would offer money to fund programs for the refugees in Turkey; the visa requirement would be suppressed for Turks entering the Schengen area for three months; and the stalling accession negotiation of Turkey to the EU would be ‘re-energized’ (please refer to our December 1, 2015 blog on ‘The EU – Turkey summit of 29 November 2015 : A “Re-Energised” Relationship’) .

But the ‘roadmap’ agreed in November 2015 did not rest on very solid ground. Some EU member states were reluctant to let 75 million Turks enter the EU with no visa. Classic EU Commission spending rules did not make it easy to spend money efficiently in Turkey.  The Turks were not very dynamic in reinforcing the control of their border with Greece. And President Erdogan did not make much effort to improve his image in Europe or help restore peace in Syria.

The whole project could thus have derailed if a new emergency had not developed in the first months of 2016: overwhelmed by migrants, all countries on the ‘Balkan road’, one after the other, starting with Austria, decided to close their southern border. In the end, those who had not made it to Macedonia ended up being blocked in Greece. A humanitarian disaster was looming, with tens of thousands families, often with small children, stuck in the Greek islands or at the border with Macedonia for a prolonged period, with no infrastructure to accommodate them.

The only solution was to give a new impetus to the deal with Turkey.  A new summit with the Turkish prime minister was hastily organized on 7 March. It will not be remembered as a highlight in European Council governance: the evening before the summit, while its president Donald Tusk was negotiating with the Ambassadors possible draft conclusions based on the numerous contacts he had made in preparation for the meeting, Angela Merkel was secretly meeting with Davutoglu to discuss a new proposal the Turks had prepared.

The suggestion was that from a certain date all new migrants crossing from Turkey to Greece would be returned to Turkey, but for each of the Syrians among them, another Syrian would be resettled directly from Turkey to the EU. The intended message for the Syrians was: do not risk your life in going to Greece, ask asylum in the EU from Turkey directly. For the others, the message was even more clear: if you enter Greece you will be sent back, with just a minimal ‘vulnerability’ check.

In addition, taking advantage of the ‘leverage’ offered by the worsening of the situation, the Turkish government asked (and obtained) a doubling of the financial contribution, from 3 to 6 billion Euros, an acceleration of the visa liberalization calendar and more specific commitments on the chapters which would be opened in the accession negotiation.

Angela Merkel accepted most of Davutoglu’s suggestions and as usual imposed the deal on her colleagues. Some of these, though, were seriously annoyed, either because they did not want to appear to favor Turkey, or just because they resented the way Germany had again imposed its views on them as a fait accompli.

The most furious was Nicos Anastasiades, the prime minister of Cyprus. As is well known, Cyprus is blocking the negotiation of a certain number of chapters in the Turkish accession talks because Turkey does not recognize Cyprus as a state and does not let its ships dock in Turkish ports. At a time when the settlement with North Cyprus is about to succeed, unilateral concessions to Turkey as was suggested in the Merkel-Davutoglu deal, would have shaken the byzantine balance of the negotiation between North and South Cyprus.

The deal with Turkey was also strongly criticized by some NGOs and UN representatives, who considered that forcing mass repatriation of refugees from Greece to Turkey was in contravention of the Geneva Convention of 1951 – the more so because Turkey had only partially adhered to the Convention. And President Erdogan did not really help make the atmosphere more positive when, a few days before the March 7 European Council, he nationalized Zaman, Turkey’s largest daily newspaper.

Nevertheless, ‘realpolitik’ had the last word. The deal concluded between Merkel and Davutoglu was the only way to ensure the effective closure of the Balkan road. This was bringing relief not only to Germany but to all countries on the road, and also to all the other member states of the Union, who were increasingly afraid to see the principle of free movement of people in the Schengen area put into question, which would have been a major setback for the Union.

It was thus decided to agree the deal in principle and fine-tune the text before the regular ‘Spring’ European Council which took place on 17 and 18 March.

The European Council did not have much difficulty in endorsing Conclusions on migration, including a special effort to support Greece and a joint statement with Turkey including the new quid pro quo negotiated with the German Chancellor. The main elements of the new deal are:

  • All migrants entering Greece from Turkey after March 20 will be sent back to Turkey, but this will happen ‘in full agreement with EU and international law’, with no ‘collective expulsion’. This is the most delicate element of the deal, at least for those who consider Turkey to be a ‘not safe’ country. It will be up to the Turkish authorities to demonstrate it is. Since around two and a half million Syrian refugees are on Turkish soil and seem to be welcomed there better than in many EU countries, it should not be too difficult.
  • Support by UNHCR and the other member states should allow Greece to register migrants and process their asylum requests: financial assistance has been promised as well as the dispatch to Greece of ‘4000 workers, interpreters, judges, return officers and security officers’, according to Jean Claude Juncker, the EU Commission President.
  • ‘For every Syrian being returned to Turkey from Greek islands, another Syrian will be resettled from Turkey to the EU’. The choice will be made in respect of the UN ‘vulnerability criteria’. A ‘mechanism’ should allow the relocation in the EU to be shared among member states, but much of this will be done voluntarily. No additional burden will be imposed beyond what has been decided in September 2015 (a decision adopted with negative votes of some countries from Eastern Europe).
  • The lifting of the visa requirement for Turkish citizens in the Schengen area will be implemented as early as the end of June, but the text insists that it will only happen if Turkey meets the (72!) benchmarks mentioned in the ‘visa liberalization road map’.
  • And Cyprus is reassured that new chapters to be opened in the accession talks with Turkey will not necessarily be those it has blocked.

The hope now is that this agreement works and that the irregular migration from Turkey to the EU will really stop. My feeling is that the pressure is such in the EU to stop mass migration that it will indeed be the case. The moment of truth might come at the end of June when the decision will have to be made on the suppression of the visa obligation. This depends as much on Turkey’s compliance with the conditions required of it as on the EU member states being honest with their commitments.

It is interesting, from a geopolitical point of view, that the tense relationship between Greece and Turkey, dating from the dismantlement of the Ottoman Empire, will be seriously challenged. In order to make the agreement succeed, Turkey and Greece will need to cooperate closely – under the eyes of representatives of other EU members.  Greece will need to accept assistance by other member states, a step towards setting up an ‘EU coast guard’ in Greek waters. Even NATO will be involved, chasing the migrant smugglers. For those who remember the long hours spent in NATO discussing Greek-Turkish border issues, this can only be seen as a step forward.