Why the EU-Turkey deal makes sense

10.03.16 Publication:

There is something very disturbing about doing a deal, involving billions of euros and a lot of concessions, with a country whose government has become so authoritarian and has just seized the biggest newspaper group to make it less critical. But the European Union, led by Angela Merkel, is nevertheless doing the right thing in its new deal with Turkey over refugees. In fact, it is doing what it should have been doing two, three, or even four years ago.

The right, and most ethical, way to help people who have been displaced from their homes by violent conflict, is to help keep them safe and comfortable as close to their homes as possible. For the 11 million people displaced from their homes in Syria, that means either in safe areas within their country, or in camps in the neighbouring countries of Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey.

But that involves providing more than just food and shelter. It means doing what is needed to enable refugees, many of whom have been forced out of their homes now for nearly five years, to live as normal a life as possible: earning a living, educating their children, forming a community.

The vast majority of Syrian refugees do not want to come to Europe. They want to go home to Syria, and if that is not possible, to stay nearby and be with their families and local communities. The policy of European countries, both separately and as the EU, should have been directed firmly at enabling them to do so. Instead, humanitarian aid budgets have been kept meager or even cut. And meanwhile Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey have felt unable or unwilling to allow refugees living in camps in their countries to look for work.

So it should be hardly surprising that those refugees with enough money to pay people smugglers have used it to try to escape their dismal fate. Once Chancellor Merkel said last year that they would all be welcome, it was hardly surprising that many more were encouraged to spend their money and risk their lives.

This is not just Europe’s fault. The whole of the United Nations’ refugee policy is outdated, treating refugees’ plight as being temporary and requiring simply humanitarian aid, rather than long-lasting, as it often is. But the European Union is one of the most advanced, wealthy and intelligent regions of the world. Confronted with such widespread instability just across the Mediterranean, in Syria, Libya and other parts of the Middle East and North Africa, it needed to show leadership and innovation in facing up to this crisis of refugees and migration.

The history of the past two years is the history of Europe’s failure to show not just leadership and innovation but also solidarity. It has tried to react in a piecemeal, often frugal fashion, doing as little each time as it could get away with. That approach worked, more or less, during the euro crisis. But in the migrant crisis it has failed, miserably.

Which is why the new EU-Turkey deal is an important change of approach, a potentially transformative moment. Turkey is certainly an unpleasant, blackmailing country. But Lebanon is not wonderful to deal with either, and Jordan has its weaknesses too. We have no choice but to deal with these countries, because that is where the massive refugee camps are.

The particulars of the EU-Turkey may be challenged, especially over whether the returning of asylum-seekers is compatible with international law. But the direction it sets needs to be maintained, extended to the other countries hosting refugee camps, and probably more than doubled in size and in costs. The EU target should be to enable life in the refugee camps to become as close as possible to normal life, which also means incentivizing European companies to invest in industrial zones near the camps in order to create jobs there and outsource production.

The alternative is for flows of refugees to Europe to keep on doubling every year. It is disturbing and in some ways disgusting to make deals with Turkey in order to avoid this. But it is right.