22nd Mar 2018


Ending the migrant deal with Turkey may save the EU

  • Bunting with the EU and Turkish flags. (Photo: dschenck)

It has been one year since Turkey and the European Union signed a migrant deal on Syrian refugees.

The controversial agreement has been effective in reducing the flow of Syrian and other refugees through Turkey, who aim to reach Europe.

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However, this particular deal has come at an incredibly huge political price for the EU and its member states, notably Germany.

From the agreement's inception, Turkey has been trying to use it as a card to exert political pressure against the EU, and has more than once threatened to call it off if it did not get visa-free travel for Turkish citizens in return.

However, this goes beyond the visa-free aspect.

Harsh rhetoric

In fact, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, feeling in a strong position, has been engaging in increasingly harsh rhetoric towards the EU and its member states.

In contrast, the EU and national officials from its member states have largely refrained from engaging in a verbal confrontation with Erdogan.

While European leaders do their utmost to save the migrant deal, the European public has increasingly come to perceive the deal as a lost case.

It is the inability of the EU institutions and European leaders to develop a workable alternative that has aggravated the public and has reduced the chances of the re-election of the current ruling governments.

In Germany and France, where elections will be held soon, far-right anti-EU parties have emerged - posing a serious threat to the political establishment.

With strong anti-EU agendas, the success of these parties is tied to the very future of the European Union.

Dutch elections

However, the Dutch election has brought some light into these gloomy prospects. For a long time prior to the Dutch elections this week, polls showed a tight race between Geert Wilders' far right (PVV) and the Liberal party (VVD) of the incumbent Dutch prime minister, Mark Rutte.

Many observers in and outside Europe thought that Wilders had a serious chance of winning the elections. But, with less than a week before the elections, an unprecedented diplomatic row emerged between Turkey and the Netherlands - proving to be a game-changer in favour of Rutte.

What is interesting is that PM Rutte and his party, VVD, were strong supporters of the EU-Turkey migrant deal.

If they had lost the election, this particular point would have been one of the main reasons for it. But Rutte calculated that confronting Turkey would lift his party’s popularity at the expense of Wilders' party, who had demanded even more drastic measures against Turkey.

When Erdogan went as far as to accuse the Dutch of the mass murder of 8000 Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica in 1995, Rutte gave a strong but measured response. In doing so, Rutte showed that he could be tough, but - unlike Wilders - he can stay in control. This proved to be the right strategy.

The populist finals

Rutte referred to the Dutch elections as a "quarter-final" face-off against the “wrong populists’’, thus considering the upcoming elections in France and Germany as semi-final and final confrontations, respectively.

One of the strong cards in the hands of anti-EU movements across Europe has been the migrant crisis and the EU’s inability to develop an alternative plan to the deal with Turkey. The harsh rhetoric of president Erdogan and other Turkish officials has only added to the frustrations.

Rutte’s win shows that by standing up to Erdogan’s bullying, the establishment has a strong card to play against the populists, at least in the short-term.

Following the Dutch elections, internal party pressures in France and Germany will likely lead to calls to follow Rutte’s example.

However, one may argue that Rutte’s position was different, since the migrant deal was not directly at stake. Moreover, one may expect confrontations with Germany or France to be of a much larger magnitude.

Turkish confrontation

In spite of these points, French and German establishment parties may find at least two strong reasons to risk such confrontations with Turkey.

First of all, in light of the widespread public displeasure in Europe over Erdogan’s rhetoric, any diplomatic row and subsequent steps by Turkey to end the migrant deal will be easily defendable.

Secondly, should Turkey decide to end the deal, the EU has established physical barriers and has put mechanisms in place that would prevent another mass flow of refugees similar to that of 2015.

With the Dutch elections still fresh in mind, establishment parties in France and Germany may very well be tempted to copy the example of Rutte’s and, in doing so, may win the battle against the anti-EU parties.

If they manage to play their cards right - the end of the migrant deal may very well be the saviour of the European Union.

Zana Kurda is a researcher at the Institute for European Studies, Free University of Brussels.

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