EU: Migrant crisis anew?

EU: Migrant crisis anew?

A mass gathering of migrants at the Greek-Turkish border has brought back memories of the refugee crisis of 2015. Although the EU is reacting differently in 2020, the underlying causes and potential implications remain the same.

On February 28, Turkish President Erdogan announced that his country would no longer keep migrants from crossing the land and sea borders with the European Union following intensifying conflict in Syria’s Idlib province. Within hours, thousands desperate to make it into the EU arrived at the Greek-Turkish border where they faced strong resistance from Greek border protection. 

In the view of considerable political implications for the bloc following the migrant influx of 2015, Europe this time responded with a tough stance, both on closing its borders and on negotiating with President Erdogan, who demands more support for his campaign in the Syrian civil war and in coping with Turkey’s own refugee burden. Yet, despite its ambitious new leadership, Europe remains vulnerable to Erdogan’s threats, as the renewed crisis laid bare the bloc’s indecisiveness, lack of cohesion and passiveness when it comes to conflict solving and implementing an EU-wide asylum policy. 

Turkey pushes for support 

President Erdogan’s decision to ‘open the gates’ towards Europe came a day after at least 33 Turkish soldiers were killed in an airstrike in Syria’s Idlib province, the country’s northwest close to the Turkish border. There, Turkey has engaged in a war with Russian-backed Syrian forces of President Bashar al-Assad who are fighting to retake the last rebel bastion of the country. Hosting nearly 4 million Syrian refugees already, Turkey is determined to stop Assad’s advances which have displaced at least a million more Syrians toward Turkey’s border. 

Before Erdogan’s decision on February 28, Turkey actively prevented migrants from attempting to cross the border to Europe under the 2016 EU-Turkey deal which promised €6 billion in aid in return. However, public resentment in Turkey has grown over rising Turkish casualties in Syria and millions of refugees in the country amid an economic downturn. With the prospect of millions more heading towards Turkey, Erdogan reinforced previous frustrations with the EU over current terms of the deal by sending migrants to its borders. Through reminding Europe that the cause behind the momentous 2015 migrant crisis is still ongoing, Erdogan aims for additional financial aid and immediate military support from ‘all NATO partners’ in northwest Syria. 

Barbed wire and tear gas

As thousands are stranded on the Greek-Turkish border, memories of the 2015 refugee crisis linger Europe-wide. At the time, German Chancellor Merkel decided to take in over a million refugees fleeing the Syrian conflict. Since then, the United Kingdom has left the European Union, far-right populists have risen in Western Europe, while Central and Eastern Europe have seen the strengthening of nationalist governments. Only by forging the multi-billion-euro agreement with Turkey, the ongoing flow of migrants into Europe could be reduced significantly. However, the deal did not address the conflict in Syria, the main reason for the refugee crisis. Therefore, the EU potentially faces a similar crisis in 2020 after President Erdogan broke the agreement. 

Although parallels to the 2015 crisis are evident, both Berlin and Brussels reject the comparison, not least because Europe’s reaction this time is vastly different. At the Greek-Turkish border, migrants are met with force and tear gas while all asylum claims in the country are suspended for a month. The EU condoned these actions while Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced €700 million assistance to Greece as border protection has become the main priority in this flare-up. By shutting down its borders, the EU aims to send a signal to Ankara that it is not susceptible to the pressure of President Erdogan, whose demands for further financial assistance and military support in Syria it rejects. Instead, Europe’s objective is to restore the existing EU-Turkey agreement. 

EU passiveness increases vulnerability 

With general elections scheduled in Germany and France in 2021 and 2022, respectively, the European Union desperately wants to avoid a repeat of the 2015 crisis which led to the surge of anti-immigration populist politicians. The deal with Turkey forged in 2016 brought time for the bloc to develop a sustainable migration policy, including an internal relocation system. However, the ongoing plight in refugee camps on the Greek islands, such as Moria on Lesbos, reflect the inaction and lack of European cohesion that has prevented necessary progress. 

Against this backdrop, the new EU leadership is looking to establish a more assertive and unified Europe, evidenced by Commission President von der Leyen’s call for a sustainable migration concept. Yet, no other issue has divided the bloc in recent years like migration, and it is unlikely that nationalist governments in Poland or Hungary will change their stance on this topic anytime soon.  

Meanwhile, a week after Erdogan’s announcement, the flow of migrants to the Greek border has largely waned as Turkey appears to be back in compliance with the 2016 agreement. This comes after President Erdogan and Russian President Putin agreed on a ceasefire in Idlib. However, since previous ceasefires failed and the war in Syria continues, nonetheless, the potential for further escalation remains high for which Europe is still not prepared. Plus, a lack of common foreign policy makes the EU simply an observer of events in Syria. Consequently, Europe continues to be vulnerable to President Erdogan’s threats of loosening its commitment to the EU-Turkey deal, as millions of migrants remain desperate to seek refuge in the EU.  

Categories: Europe, Under The Radar

About Author

Maxim Hofer

Maxim Hofer is a country analyst for a global market intelligence publisher. He holds a Diploma in Business Economics from the University of Mainz, Germany, and a Master of Science in International Business and Politics from Queen Mary University of London. Currently, he is pursuing the Certificate of Higher Education in Political Economy from Oxford University.