The EU-Turkey refugee deal: neither European, nor a solution

Before German Chancellor Angela Merkel went to Brussels today (March 17) for an EU summit, she gave a state of the nation address at the Bundestag that focused on negotiations between the EU and Turkey over a refugee deal. She repeated her mantra that she is fighting for a European solution as there are no national solutions to the European refugee crisis and that while Turkey is not an ideal partner, there is no realpolitik alternative but to engage with Ankara. The opposition supported both Merkel’s bid for a European solution and to engage with Ankara, but criticized the deal with Turkey, warning Merkel not to allow the EU to be blackmailed by the regime of President Erdogan. The criticism echoed the opposition from other EU member states and human rights organizations against a deal that Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu had presented to EU leaders on March 7. That criticism is well founded. The deal, even in the watered-down version on the table today, appears to violate the EU’s legal foundations and obligations related to asylum, starting from the fact that Turkey is not a safe third country; moreover, it is unlikely to solve the European refugee crisis in the medium term, perhaps even in the short term.

But the Bundestag debate missed the real issue at hand: even though Merkel has been insisting for months she has no Plan B other than to fight for a common European solution, the fact is she and the other EU leaders gave up on a European solution a long time ago.

When Merkel finally took action on September 4, 2015, and negotiated with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban to allow tens of thousands of asylum-seekers to move on to Germany (and Austria), she seized European responsibility based on an approach she had tested many times since the beginning of the Euro crisis – reactive leadership, supported by a coalition of willing member states. But this approach hit a wall on September 22, when EU interior ministers voted by qualified majority for a relocation scheme for 160,000 asylum-seekers. The ink was barely dry on the scheme when Slovakia’s Prime Minister Robert Fico announced that his government would not implement the legally binding decision. Orban later announced a national referendum on the decision, and so far almost no member state has met its obligations. That day not only represented a failure to move from reactive leadership to a common EU policy – it marked the moment when the Union de facto ceased to function as a values- and rules-based entity.

Despite her unchanged rhetoric, Merkel tacitly shifted during those days in September, avoiding confrontation about the core problem of EU disunity. This was evident on November 18, when the states on the Balkan route decided to let pass only asylum-seekers from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan – a segregation by nationality in breach of half a dozen international and European conventions and domestic legislation – in order to reduce the refugee flow; the German government remained silent. And now we got the Merkel-Erdogan deal on the table.

Germany’s position inside the EU as the reluctant hegemon has been eroded as the Chancellor’s reactive leadership has reached its limits. Merkel has so far failed to move beyond her standard approach, because it is a perfect fit with her personality and policy style. She is a policy manager, not a strategist or visionary. That’s why her defense of her refugee policy with passionate references to European values – a novelty for her – appeared odd. In essence, Merkel kept that narrative limited to selling her policy in Germany – she did not carry the fight for European values to the EU level.

This is what makes any deal with Turkey at this point wrong – not the fact that she is negotiating with an increasingly authoritarian regime that is rolling back previous democratic and rule-of-law reforms at an accelerated pace. Merkel is trying to outsource the problem of the EU’s internal disunity. And while Ankara is entering into negotiations due to the regime’s own political crisis, the EU is negotiating from an even weaker position because none of its leaders wants to confront its internal crisis.

In an ironic way, the Austrian Plan B-policy forms the other side of the coin of EU refugee policy. Announced as a “chain reaction of reason” that is supposed to increase the pressure for a common EU policy, Vienna’s forcing of the Western Balkan states towards closure of the Balkan route will in the end not lead to a common European policy, but leave Merkel and the EU with no other option than to reach a deal with Ankara – in order to avoid chaos in Greece. But the deal provides no sustainable solution.

The European refugee crisis is in fact two crises. The first is the refugee crisis – serious but manageable. The second crisis – of the EU – is much more serious. In order to sustainably handle the refugee crisis, Merkel and her willing allies need to move out of their comfort zone and start to revive the Union, a Union based on common European, liberal-democratic values. They need to force all member state leaders to put their cards on the table to see who is still committed to these core values. Those member states that lack such commitment need to think hard about what it takes to be a member of the EU and decide if they want to remain. And the rest should seek again to turn the EU into a serious political actor, both internally and externally.