EU, Turkey Agree To Keep Talking On Refugee Crisis, Will Reconvene Next Week

Update: Monday came and went, and here, courtesy of Bloomberg's bullets, is what we got in terms of what amounts to a "draft of a draft":

  • Draft doesn’t refer to additional 3 billion euros for Turkey as had been requested
  • EU leaders warmly welcomed additional proposals made by Turkey today to address migration issue
  • Draft refers to agreement to work on basis of following principles:
    • to return all new irregular migrants crossing from Turkey to Greek islands with EU covering costs
    • to resettle, for every Syrian readmitted by Turkey from Greek islands, another Syrian from Turkey to EU
    • accelerate visa liberalization roadmap with view to lifting visa requirements for Turkish citizens by end June at latest
    • speed up disbursement of EU 3bln to ensure first projects funded before end March, and decide on additional funding for Refugee Facility for Syrians

Next pretend "D-Day": March 18, the last day of the European Summit. Martin Selmayr, chief-of-staff to European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, tweeted: "Deal. Breakthrough with Turkey." 

Yeah, sure.

*  *  *

On Monday, officials from the EU and Turkey are gathered in Brussels to do some talking about the refugee crisis that threatens to tear Europe apart at the seams. And make no mistake, “talk” is probably all they’ll do.

Last year, Europe and Turkey agreed on a so-called “joint action plan” which essentially amounted to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan extorting €3 billion from Brussels in exchange for a promise to curb people smuggling and stem the flow of migrants into Western Europe. As The Guardian notes, “several months on, the pact remains little more than a piece of paper.”

Although the check has been cut, it’s not entirely clear where the money went (surprise) and now that the effective closure of the Balkan route has created a severe bottleneck of refugees in Greece, Athens is very near to losing its mind.

As of Sunday, as many as 14,000 men, women, and children were stranded on Macedonia’s border which has been sealed and which migrant men have at various times tried to breach with homemade battering rams.

Now, Macedonia wants to extend the 19-mile, Orban-style razor wire fence to a 200-mile barrier complete with guards armed with tasers, a plan unveiled in Brussels over the weekend detailed.

Needless to say, Alexis Tsipras is at wit’s end.

First Brussels forced Athens to accept a third sovereign bailout that carried draconian terms and all but guaranteed the country will remain a debt serf of Berlin for the next five decades. Now, Austria has effectively conspired with the Balkan countries to close the route north to Germany leaving Greece on its own to handle the influx. “Europe is in the midst of a nervous crisis, primarily for reasons of political weakness,” said he said on Sunday.

(A man looks at the Greek island of Lesbos from the Turkish coastline)

“About 13,000-14,000 people are trapped in Idomeni, while another 6,000-7,000 are being housed in refugee camps around the region,” Al Jazeera reports, citing Apostolos Tzitzikostas, governor of Central Macedonia province.

"It's a huge humanitarian crisis. I have asked the government to declare the area in a state of emergency," he said during a visit to Idomeni on Saturday to distribute aid to the Red Cross and other non-governmental organisations.

For her part, the Iron Chancellor claims “rumors” that the Balkan route has been closed “do not conform to the facts” (to quote China’s NBS):

Coming back to Monday’s summit, “the crucial point is to know if Turkey is a player on our side, because up to now they declare they are on our side, but they don’t do anything to prove that,” Miltiadis Kyrkos, a Greek MEP who is the vice-chair of the European parliament’s joint committee with Turkey, said.

As for Turkey, you can say what you will about Erdogan’s belligerence, but the country is not only on the frontlines of the refugee crisis, but on the frontlines of the war itself. The pressure is palpable to say the absolute least.

Take the tiny town of Kilis for instance, which has more than doubled in size from the refugee influx. Incidentally, the town (which WSJ notes was previously “best known as a place for truckers to pick up pistachio-encrusted pastries before crossing the nearby Syrian border”), is up for a Nobel Peace Prize for its efforts.

“To encourage refugees to stay, Ankara is now allowing millions of Syrians to legally work in Turkey, ending a policy in place since the start of the war. But the new regulation comes with restrictions,” WSJ goes on to document. “The restrictions, along with the often-convoluted bureaucratic challenges, make it hard for Syrian families to stay.”

In other words, some Turkish towns with big hearts are doing their part (and more), but Ankara hasn’t even begun to implement the type of measures that will stop refugees from fleeing to Western Europe and besides, Turkey isn’t that much safer than Syria these days. “Using Turkey as a ‘safe third country’ is absurd,” said Amnesty’s director for Europe and Central Asia, Gauri van Gulik. “Many refugees still live in terrible conditions; some have been deported back to Syria and security forces have even shot at Syrians trying to cross the border.” And that’s if they don’t get blown up by the very same groups blowing them up in Syria, groups that are armed and funded by Erdogan.

As The Guardian goes on to say, “resettlement was Angela Merkel’s last gambit for solving the refugee crisis. In mid-February, the German government confidently presented a plan in which a “coalition of the willing” – including Austria, Germany, Sweden and the Benelux trio – would take 300,000 refugees from Turkey a year [but] the renegade actions of Austria and the western Balkan states have forced Merkel into a rethink.”

It’s our damned duty,” she insisted last week. “And no I don’t have a Plan B.”

Well, she had better get one, before the German electorate goes with “Plan B” for chancellor.

As for whether Erdogan will suddenly step up to the plate - don’t hold your “damned” breath. “Turkey’s diplomacy [is like] an eastern bazaar,” the aforementioned Miltiadis Kyrkos said. And it's not just money Ankara wants. Turkish PM Ahmet Davutoglu is looking to trade concessions on migrants for fast-track membership to the EU. "I am sure these challenges will be solved through our cooperation and Turkey is ready to work with the EU," Davutoglu said. "Turkey is ready to be a member of the EU as well. Today I hope this summit will not just focus on irregular migration but also the Turkish accession process to the EU."

But Europeans aren't exactly thrilled about Ankara's latest move away from democratic norms. "Media freedom is a non-negotiable element of our European identity," European Parliament President Martin Schulz said he had told the Turkish Premier, referring to Erdogan's move to seize control of The Daily Zaman.

And sure enough, as FT reports, Turkey is asking for more concessions: "Ahead of crunch summit between EU leaders and the Turkish prime minister on Monday, Ankara has called for an increase on the €3bn in aid previously promised by the EU, faster access to Schengen visas for Turkish citizens and accelerated progress in its EU membership bid." One imagines a long list of eleventh hour demands could well cause the whole thing to collapse.

Perhaps Dutch prime minister, Mark Rutte put it best: “[This] is not the summit that will change anything.”