Just the Facts: The European Union, Turkey and the Migrant Crisis – The March European Council summit

Since the start of 2015, more than 1 million migrants have entered the EU on boats from Turkey to Greece, including nearly 150,000 in 2016 alone. In an effort to find a common approach to Europe’s worsening migrant crisis, the 28 EU Heads of State and Government have been holding meetings with the Turkish Prime Minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, the latest of which was at the most recent European Council summit held on Thursday 17 and Friday 18 March in Brussels. A summary of the EU-Turkey Agreement reached at this summit is outlined in this Just the Facts.

The Summit

Talks at the Council summit were protracted, but the EU and Turkey reached an agreement on Friday 18 March. Both parties agreed the following measures, among others, in an attempt to end irregular migration from Turkey to the EU by disrupting the business model of smugglers and offering migrants an alternative to putting their lives at risk:

  • As a temporary and extraordinary measure, all new irregular migrants arriving into Greece from Turkey as from Sunday 20 March will be sent back across the Aegean Sea.
  • Spending of the €3 billion already allocated to help Syrian refugees in Turkey will be accelerated. Once this is spent, the EU will mobilise up to an additional €3 billion for the same purpose in Turkey to the end of 2018.
  • For every Syrian returned to Turkey from Greece, another Syrian will be resettled from Turkey to the EU. Priority will be given to migrants who have not previously made an attempt to enter the EU irregularly. Resettlement will take place by honouring the commitments taken by Member States in the Justice and Home Affairs Council on 20 July 2015, of which 18,000 places for resettlement remain. Further resettlement will be carried out in Member States through a similar voluntary arrangement up to a limit of an additional 54,000 places.
  • Talks have advanced regarding Turkey’s accession to the EU. Talks have also advanced regarding visa-free travel for Turkish citizens to the EU’s passport-free Schengen zone, although not the right to work, by the end of June 2016, provided that all benchmarks, including the full introduction of biometric passports, have been met.
  • The EU and its Member States will work with Turkey in any joint endeavour to improve humanitarian conditions inside Syria.

Reaction

Legal questions have been raised about the EU-Turkey deal. The Spanish Foreign Minister, José Manuel García-Margallo, interpreted the Agreement as “contrary to the international law, to the Geneva Convention and to the European treaties”, while President François Hollande of France said that “there cannot be any concessions on the matter of human rights or the criteria for visa liberalisation”. Non-governmental organisations have been strongly critical of the deal, leading to a number of aid agencies, such as Médecins Sans Frontières, suspending some of their activities in Greece. The chief executive of Goal, Barry Andrews, accused the EU of “outsourcing its obligations” to a country outside the Geneva Convention. Furthermore, Greece is still to introduce legislation in order to recognise Turkey as a safe third country, a key point for sending migrants back there.

Political opposition to the deal increased after the terror attacks in Brussels on 22 March. Citing security concerns, Poland announced it was reversing its decision to take in asylum-seekers as part of the Agreement.

However, as implementation of the EU-Turkey Agreement continues, it is still too early to determine whether it will succeed or fail in helping to tackle the “Herculean task” facing Europe, as European Commission President, Jean-Claude Juncker, has described the migration crisis.

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