31st Jan 2023


Threat to EU on Greece-Turkey border is EU-made

  • Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, inspecting the Greek border by air last week, with Charles Michel, president of the European Council and Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the Greek prime minister (Photo: European Union)

The images of barbed wire and tear gas being thrown from the Greek side of the border with Turkey call to mind similar scenes in Greece, Hungary and elsewhere in 2015-16.

Yet comparing the words and actions of the top national and EU officials then and now, one cannot help but be reminded of Karl Marx, who noted that 'history repeats itself - first time as tragedy, second time as farce'.

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In 2015, just like today, the EU was confronted with a crisis entirely of its own making, not 'threatened' by asylum seekers. It was the world's failure to pay for effective humanitarian response – in 2015, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) received just 35 percent of the amount it needed for its Syria plan – that ultimately forced millions to move.

Despite the escalating bloodshed in Idlib, the EU had made no evident plans to continue funding Syrian refugees in Turkey with the impending expiration of the so-called EU-Turkey statement.

While 2015-16 was marked by an intra-EU battle over facts and legal interpretations, even that sort of deliberation seems to be gone in this current crisis. It is thus critical to first get basic facts and terminology right.

There is no such thing as an "EU-Turkey deal."

In 2017, the president of the European Council preempted legal scrutiny of the "EU-Turkey statement" by declaring to the European Court of Justice that the deal had been concluded between Turkey and the EU's member states – not the Union as a legal entity.

This blocked a finding by the court that the deal violated European law, as Turkey is not a safe "third country".

Under international and European law, no country has the right to prevent asylum-seekers from leaving a country, and it is illegal to prevent them from entering a country – as is being done by Greece.

Under the Geneva Refugee Convention, and related European law, there is no such thing as "illegal migration," just irregular migration (as long as a migrant files an application for international protection upon irregular entry into a country).

'Protection of external border'?

Further, the phrase "protection of the external border" of the EU is entirely misleading, as it suggests the establishment of law and order, while it in fact means illegally preventing refugees and asylum seekers from entering EU territory.

Suspension of asylum procedures, whether for a month or even a day, is in violation of the Geneva Convention, the European Convention on Human Rights as well as national Greek (or Hungarian) law.

Finally, striking a follow-up deal with Turkey will not, as some of the authors of the original deal insist, ensure the survival of the Geneva Convention and the right to asylum in Europe.

Indeed, the original deal gravely undermined the convention and the right to asylum, and a new deal will only extend this practice.

The current narrative's complete avoidance of core questions is astounding.

Reasoned, rational discussion seems to now be a collective pan-European taboo. EU leaders evidently fear that just by opening up such discussion, the Union would disintegrate.

In September 2015, when some of the Visegrád countries declared they would not implement the EU's legally-binding relocation scheme, the Union collapsed as a legal entity in the area of asylum and migration.

Advocates of the scheme had previously refused the principle of solidarity and "burden-sharing," until they themselves became the main destination countries of large numbers of asylum-seekers.

The failure also marked the end of Angela Merkel's EU leadership that had seen the EU through various crises and prevented its collapse, albeit at the cost of delayed structural reforms.

The failure of Merkel's coalition of willing member states to sell a "European solution" to the refugee crisis to the rest of the EU led to this ad hoc group's subsequent collapse, followed by these governments making a U-turn towards "national solutions."

That is, giving in to domestic populist political forces' pressure: a recipe for repetitive failure and further buoying of national populism.

The legal stunt of the so-called EU-Turkey deal, and the entirely illegal closure of the Balkan route in March 2016, were not intended to buy time to reach an actual agreement on a joint EU policy on asylum and migration, but rather an effort to offshore the problem created by the lack of agreement, and to provide cover to avoid facing that reality.

The EU and its member states reverted to a lowest common denominator policy, effectively surrendering to Orbán's policy of fortress Europe.

This amounts to partial suspension of the Geneva Convention and basic asylum and human rights at the Union's external border.

History lesson from 2015

Chancellor Merkel pressured then-Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker to block the infringement procedure against Hungary's 2015 illegal changes to its asylum legislation.

Both the only partial implementation of the so-called EU-Turkey deal, as well as the Greek authorities 'failure' to address the sub-standard situation on the Greek islands, were not the result of an alleged implementation problem, but formed constituent elements of this tacit fortress Europe policy.

The Greek authorities' performance at the sea and land border with Turkey over the last few days, and the support given by the highest EU representatives, including Commission president Ursula von der Leyen's praise of Greece as the Union's "aspida" (shield), only served to legitimise that policy, further marking the collective debasement of the Union's liberal democratic values and its own acquis.

This was made possible because Europe's political and intellectual elites across the board, from the far right to the very left, from the most Eurosceptic to the most pro-European, have effectively given up on a joint EU asylum and migration policy.

Such surrender weakens the EU and its member states, acting as a force multiplier for rising populists and extreme rightwing nationalist forces.

Reactionaries define policy as if they represented the majority, while liberal democratic majorities curl into a defensive posture and absorb their blows.

The EU's hand has thereby been weakened in relation to the growing number of illiberal member states, led by Orbán.

Extra-territorialising the EU's existential internal problem profoundly distorts its external policy, preventing the Union (including an avowed "geopolitical Commission") from actually becoming a serious global actor.

It distorts the Union's braindead Turkey policy, undermines its push for rule of law reforms in the Western Balkan countries, discredits its policy towards Africa, undermines its foreign and security policy towards the Middle East, in Syria, and Russia.

Ultimately, it disarms any European pushback against the Trump administration's gutting the liberal world order and undermining Western democracy by demonstrating pushbacks are a point of transatlantic solidarity. There is no moral gradient on this issue.

The current crisis will likely end in another deal with Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and the upcoming Conference on the Future of Europe will most probably circumvent the issue of asylum and migration.

None of this will save the EU nor European democracies in the long run – to remain in existence, the EU will have to face its existential quandaries.

Author bio

Bodo Weber is a senior associate of the Democratization Policy Council, based in Berlin.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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