In March 2016, six months after the dramatic escalation of the refugee crisis in Europe, the member states of the European Union (EU) reached an agreement that could represent the beginning of the end of the crisis. Significantly, this move went beyond the EU, because Europeans were unable to find the necessary level of common ground and determination among themselves. Only by expanding the circle to include Turkey did European government leaders succeed in finding a balance between opposing interests: Turkey will now take back every migrant that enters the EU across its borders and is not entitled to asylum there. The EU countries will in turn accept one Syrian refugee directly from Turkey for each Syrian that Turkey takes back. They will also help Greece to swiftly examine asylum applications and now double the original sum of three billion euros that was promised Turkey for refugee aid until 2018. In addition, the EU has agreed to visa-free entry for Turkish citizens, dependent on fulfilment of a series of political, legal and technical criteria.
The formulation of the EU-Turkey action plan achieved at the March summit ties the success of European refugee policy to the partnership with Turkey and the willingness of Turkish political leaders to engage in reliable cooperation. The country’s position in a conflict-prone neighbourhood, its internal risks and conflicts and its constitutional weakness do not represent the best preconditions for this. At the same time, the EU countries have moved closer to the causes of migration. They have left the comfort zone of communiqués, donor conferences and support for the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and are in the process of themselves intervening directly in the care of millions of refugees in the Near and Middle East. The stability of Europe now partially depends on the stability of Turkey.
Clearly, Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel had this in mind when, in her statement of government policy before the German Bundestag on 16 March 2016, she stated: “Today conflicts that used to seem very far away from us affect us directly, and they will also regularly affect us directly in the future.” This is because the old response of battening down the hatches no longer works; the “control of externalities”, as it is known in security policy jargon, no longer functions in an increasingly interdependent world. What this means for Europe is that it now has to actively participate in calming and resolving the many conflicts in its neighbourhood to be able to live in security and peace itself.
That is why the partnership with Turkey can only be one element in a greater commitment. The summit declaration already points to an intensification of cooperation with Lebanon and Jordan, where the situation of the people in the refugee camps is several times more critical than it is in Turkey. The February 2016 Syria Donors Conference in London raised pledges of 6 billion US dollars in aid funding for 2016 and an additional 6.1 billion US dollars for 2017 to 2020. Germany alone will contribute 2.3 billion euros until 2018. It is crucial that the pledged funds actually flow. Further steps must also follow to achieve a negotiated settlement of the conflict in Syria. Europe requires strategic staying power not only when it comes to the development of new government structures in the deeply divided and radicalised societies of Syria and Iraq, but also with regard to achieving equilibrium in the dangerous rivalry between Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. North Africa is also threatened, and regional conflicts and terrorism can destroy the only remaining success story of the Arab Spring – the new political order in Tunisia.
Accordingly, the Europeans’ lack of willingness or ability to effectively pool their resources in response to the refugee crisis has given rise to the need for a more vigorously committed foreign policy in the continent’s broader neighbourhood – and this is the case amidst portents of a decreasing presence of the United States of America, on the one hand, and the intervention of a Russia motivated by power politics, on the other. This consequence will create difficulties for several EU governments that believed they could push the problem out of the way by blocking a common policy. Furthermore, a rethink will also be required by those governments that believed the problem could be outsourced if they spent enough money.
In addition, however, it should not be overlooked that the EU’s internal problems have not been solved with the European-Turkish action plan. Here, too, there is a growing need for joint action, above all, to achieve a swift improvement in the situation in Greece – not only when it comes to support for refugees, but also with regard to the processing of asylum applications. If Turkey no longer allows refugees to enter the EU, the weakness of EU external border security becomes less important, but the problem still continues to exist. Europe needs an effective joint border protection system to which all states contribute. Claims of national sovereignty should not be able to block this.
The question of the acceptance of recognised refugees in Europe has not been resolved either. They must be admitted to other EU countries when their asylum applications have been processed. More agreements with Turkey will become necessary when the one-in, one-out rule on the return of people who are not entitled to asylum is exhausted. Subsequently, the EU will have to decide whether to agree quotas for people who can come directly to Europe from refugee camps in Turkey. If these are not agreed, then not only Turkey, but also Jordan and Lebanon will have to bear the refugee burden alone. Within the EU, the political willingness to accept burden sharing on the acceptance of refugees remains fragile even after the March summit. The agreements are based on the voluntary participation of the member states. It seems that, in addition to Germany, a larger number of EU member states will participate if the smuggler-based route into the EU is effectively blocked. German EU policy will continue to argue for the participation of the highest possible number of countries, and Germany will probably accept the largest proportion of refugees in absolute terms to preserve “Europe as a whole”. At least, the agreement with Turkey, if it is firmly put into practice, offers the prospect of predictable immigration into Germany and the EU.
In terms of interior policy, the agreement in Brussels on 18 March 2016 represented an urgently needed success for Angela Merkel’s policy. “This Chancellor has steady sea legs and a head for heights. Who would have thought it? Storms are her element,” was how Merkel’s achievement was described in one of the most important German dailies, which had criticised the Federal Chancellor’s line on several occasions in preceding weeks. Without the Brussels agreement Merkel lacked a credible prospect that the situation might change for the better. The tightening and adjustment of German asylum laws contained in the governing coalition’s so-called Asylum Package II had not been enough to achieve that. It did not resolved the political conflict between the CDU and CSU sister parties on the line the government should take. It also had no impact on the growing approval for national-populist parties and groupings. Angela Merkel had committed herself to realising the controlled limitation of immigration that the German public expected by means of a European humanitarian solution. This promise was controversial within the EU and blocked by some, which also weakened Merkel’s position in Germany. In Brussels the Federal Chancellor was able to overcome the blockade and domestic policy weakness through the agreement with Turkey. Accordingly, she has opened up new opportunities and risks that make increased demands on Europe’s ability to act in the foreign policy domain. From this perspective, the beginning of the end of the refugee crisis in Europe that has been achieved opens up a new chapter of European foreign and security policy. Europe can no longer take the liberty of abstaining from world politics.