EU refugee deal blog post image v 3The EU-Turkey summit meeting held in Brussels yesterday failed to produce the expected agreement. Nevertheless the contours of a possible deal between Brussels and Ankara are now in place. This would see the EU sending back refugees from Syria to Turkey on the basis of ‘one in, one out’. In other words new refugees from Syria would only be accepted in Europe if there is a counterpart to return to Turkey.

In return for Turkish help the EU developed further its commitment to upgrade and accelerate Turkey’s accession negotiations, including speedier visa liberalization for Turkish citizens and doubling the amount of money to be provided Turkey (to about €6 billion) to help support keeping/processing refugees from Syria and elsewhere in Turkey.

The deal done in Brussels represents another triumph for the so-called ‘Realpolitik approach to EU foreign policy. Turkey drove a hard bargain and seems to have got most of what it wanted, including substantially more money. The EU wanted to send a message to would-be migrants: ‘the EU is now closed to irregular migration’.

But in the process of bringing Turkey on board on the refugee issue the European Union may well have sold its soul. Any pretence to being a community of values and solidarity goes out the window when Brussels is cosying up to an authoritarian regime.

Human rights groups have been quick to point out that the deal may well be illegal under EU law. It is also morally indefensible. How are officials to distinguish between a genuine refugee, fleeing direct brutality and oppression in Syria, from others merely seeking escape from the inferno of civil war? Are there geographical distinctions to be made? What criteria are to be employed in the decisions to accept or return Syrian citizens?

EU leaders made no mention of the outrageous behaviour of the Erdogan government in clamping down on press freedom: Turkey has arrested scores of journalists and editors in recent months and media pluralism has decreased very significantly. The takeover by the government of Turkey’s largest selling newspaper, Zaman, at the weekend, represented a new low point for pluralism in Turkey.

Given that freedom of the press constitutes an essential condition for progress in the EU enlargement process, it seems clear that EU leaders are willing to sacrifice their own enlargement criteria in order to get a deal on the refugee problem. The EU is supposed to stand for clear values, but the summit deal demonstrates clearly that ‘interests’ triumphed over those values: ‘realpolitik’ demanded a deal and thus the EU’s democratic values had to be sacrificed.

The integrity of the criteria for EU membership, which are supposed to apply to all candidate states, are now seriously thrown into question, and this is all the more dismaying as these are objective criteria which were developed systematically and painstakingly over the last 25 years.

The EU has essentially sacrificed everything it is supposed to stand for in concluding this grubby deal with Turkey: failing to stand up for the rights of persecuted journalists and human rights campaigners, offering Turkey an accelerated membership perspective when in fact it has moved further and further away from EU standards of democracy and freedom, and placing Syrian refugees in peril. Realpolitik has the whiff of appeasement and moral turpitude.

Professor John O’ Brennan
Jean Monnet Chair of European Integration,
IACES Vice-President,
Director, Centre for European and Eurasian Studies,
Maynooth University Department of Sociology