THROUGHOUT the cold war, Turkey was one of Europe’s bastions against Soviet armies. Now it is being turned into Europe’s barrier against the huddled masses of the Middle East. At a summit on March 7th, European leaders and the Turkish prime minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, agreed on the outline of a strikingly ambitious deal. Turkey will take back all the boat-people setting off from its shores to Greece. In return, Europe is promising lots of things: money; the resettlement of many refugees now in Turkey; visa-free travel for Turks; and a revival of negotiations for Turkey to join the European Union.
Every element of the arrangement is politically, legally or morally problematic. To make matters worse, the behaviour of the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is increasingly autocratic: the weekend before striking the accord with the EU, his government took over a prominent opposition newspaper. But Europe is doing the right thing. The deal’s principles are sound (and have, indeed, been advocated by this newspaper): it would control chaotic mass-migration while preserving a generous European asylum system, and enlist Turkey as a gatekeeper by binding it more closely to Europe. It offers the best prospect of ending the uncontrolled influx that has been feeding anti-immigrant populism and undermining EU integration. And it provides a way for Europe to seek Mr Erdogan’s co-operation without flinching from criticising him.
Deal with Erdogan
Most of the 1.2m migrants who arrived in the EU last year came via Turkey. Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, had been negotiating a deal whereby asylum-seekers would be sifted on arrival in “hotspots” in Greece and Italy, and those rejected would be sent back to Turkey. The new scheme, championed by the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, is a more ambitious arrangement—all boat-people would be sent back to Turkey and processed there. This would avoid turning Greece into a refugee camp, offer a stronger disincentive to illegal migration and ensure that Europe grants protection to the most deserving, not those most able to pay people-smugglers.
But lawyers and UN agencies are already questioning the legality of mass deportation, which would require Europe to declare Turkey a “safe” country for asylum-seekers. For all its generosity to Syrians, Turkey formally applies the 1951 convention on refugees only to those fleeing war or persecution in Europe. Unless Turkey can bring its asylum system up to international norms, the EU may have to fall back on Mr Tusk’s original plan. Either way, Europe will have to be generous to refugees—it has promised to take one Syrian from Turkey for every one that is sent back from Greece—though it still cannot agree how to share them out for resettlement.
Visa liberalisation will be contentious, too. Turkey is the only EU candidate country not to enjoy visa-free travel already. The biggest obstacle, a framework for Turkey to take back illegal migrants, would be addressed by the new deal. But Turkey has yet to meet many of the EU’s 70-odd preconditions, including the introduction of biometric passports. And while a deal may limit the influx of Syrians, Afghans and others, freer travel would inevitably increase the migration of Turks into the EU.
Hardest of all will be any discussion of Turkey’s accession to the EU. Not even Turkey’s closest friends would claim that it meets the democratic standards required to begin EU negotiations, let alone gain membership. Mr Erdogan would dislike the constraints and scrutiny that membership would bring. So Europe should call his bluff by opening the two accession chapters that Mr Erdogan least wants to discuss—chapters 23 and 24, on justice and the rule of law. It should also press Turkey to do more to support talks on the reunification of Cyprus.
Ultimately, Europeans must come to terms with two realities. First, they cannot change geography: they need Turkey because it stands between Europe and much of the Eurasian landmass. Second, they cannot seal their borders entirely: the only alternative to chaos is a fair and orderly migration system, which would most benefit Europe—and those fleeing war. This week’s proposed deal is messy, but it is Europe’s best option.