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The refugee crisis returns to Europe—or does it?



Violent clashes along the Turkish border, with Greek riot police using tear gas and rubber bullets to repel would-be migrants and refugees, have become a familiar specter in Europe. As in 2015, the immigration issue threatens to fracture European unity and torment its conscience. But the crisis of 2020 is not likely to repeat the one five years ago. This time, Greek and virtually all EU political leaders support a firm response to protect their external border and will likely be able to block the entry of most illegal entrants. The prospects for agreement on a new genuine common EU migration and asylum policy may be receding, however.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey precipitated the crisis last weekend when he opened his country’s borders for migrants—many of whom, at least among the first arrivals, are not from Syria but are economic migrants from many different countries—to cross into Europe. The timing of the Turkish decision seems directly linked to the rapidly escalating fighting in the Syrian province of Idlib, where Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad’s military, aided by Russian airpower, has been stepping up assault on Syrian rebels and Turkish forces—over 30 of whom were killed in an air assault on February 28.

Despite their sympathies, many centrist European governments would be politically devastated by an influx of these refugees. As for President Erdogan, his actions may be justified from his point of view. Turkey has continued (even with EU aid) to bear the heaviest economic burden associated with refugees from Syria, and he is in effect making asymmetric warfare against the European Union. Functionally, his actions are a blatant exploitation of human misery to achieve his own short-term political goals. This fact will not go unnoticed across the European Union, where decisive political action is likely to be taken to avoid a repeat of 2015. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has already dismissed comparisons with earlier episodes, and the European Union is unlikely to succumb to what it regards as outright blackmail.

Consequently, Athens is likely to mobilize to protect its borders more rigorously under center-right Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis than under his left-wing Syriza predecessor in 2015, and with broad based public support. EU financial and even personnel support for Greece is likely to be directed in the coming weeks. In other words, the barbed wire is already going up on the Greek-Turkish border, and the reception of would-be migrants arriving on Greek islands by boat from Turkey is likely to be hostile.

A propaganda war is unfolding between the Turkish government and the European Union. Erdogan and his government have declared  that “hundreds of thousands of migrants have already made their way to Europe, and soon it will be millions.”  But the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has reported that 1,200 arrived on the Greek islands on March 1 and 2, and 13,000 are on the Greek-Turkish border. If Greek authorities cannot stem the inflow of migrants, particularly from the sea, other EU and non-EU members will respond with barbed wire along their own land borders. For all their sympathy for people suffering from terrible misery, large majorities of the EU public will support these steps.

President Erdogan is increasingly unpopular at home, in part because of the millions of migrants in Turkey. He needs EU political support in Syria, where Turkish forces are confronting the Assad regime and Russia directly. He has proposed a 30-kilometer buffer zone for civilian refugees in Idlib and would welcome EU support for this proposal.

Even so, he is going to Moscow to negotiate with Russian president Vladimir Putin, a step that speaks volumes about the balance of power in the region. The remarkable deterioration in the Turkish-Russian relationship represents a near total failure of Putin’s attempts to lure Turkey away from its historical security alliance with NATO. What other strategic goals does Putin now have in Syria, other than to be seen as outlasting the United States in a region of declining global relevance?

The current upheaval highlights the European Union’s failure to establish a common external border and migration/asylum policy. The 2015 agreement with Erdogan of “cash for refugee control” was never meant to be permanent but to provide time for EU member states to adopt a common policy. But the last several years have been largely wasted, though Frontex, the EU’s external border agency, has received more resources. The European Union will certainly—blackmail or not—have to make more financial resources available to Turkey to extend the faltering EU-Turkey migration deal, complicating EU budget negotiations. But Erdogan needs the money and is evidently pushing hard to get it.

A sudden renewed threat of uncontrolled large migrant inflows into the European Union is moreover not likely to make it easier to agree on common migration and especially asylum policies. Any proposals to redistribute migrants among EU countries will still be dead on arrival with most member states. Rather, the crystallization of the always latent threat of a neighboring country, in this case Turkey, strategically using the European Union’s porous external and open internal borders as a coercive lever against Europe, is likely to bolster the European Union’s focus on strengthening external borders as an immigration deterrent. The European Union has always had political aspirations to be a “normative power,” but it is clear that another migration crisis, which invariably in the short-term pushes it to adopt policies and measures favored by the far right, moves it in the opposite direction.

Fortress Europe is coming a little closer.

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