European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has warned that thousands of people could make their way into Europe again, should the deal collapse.
Yet on closer inspection this standoff is paradoxical. The two sides are squabbling over a deal that was difficult to implement from the outset, and that ultimately proved ineffective. The collapse of the EU-Turkey agreement constitutes neither a credible threat from Turkey nor an existential danger for the EU.
Yet the deal as such had very little to do with this. Returns to Turkey are proceeding at a very slow pace. The Greek state is overwhelmed, and the promised assistance from the EU is too small to allow individual hearings for migrants who claimed asylum to be handled speedily. Resettlement also proceeds very slowly.
The sealing of the Balkan route and reliance on Turkish policing were effective but crude measures. They contradicted the EU’s humanitarian pretenses, compromised the integrity of Schengen by isolating Greece, and gave the impression that the EU was outsourcing its border management. The complex provisions of the deal with Turkey instead create the impression that the stemming of flows takes place on the EU’s external border under a transparent procedure.
With 60,000 migrants already stranded in Greece, few others will get on boats should Turkey enable crossings again, and far fewer will trickle into the rest of the EU. European politicians are more worried that these complications will burden the political climate in Europe.
This was unpopular in broad swaths of European public opinion, and it was always uncertain whether the EU could muster the political will for it to happen. The violent crackdown in Turkey should help the EU to backtrack from this commitment by citing concerns over human rights.
Could Erdogan unleash refugees to extract revenge or placate his audience? This is improbable. Erdogan would terminally alienate the EU, lose any chance of support by the West for his foreign policies, and hurt Turkey’s economic relations with Europe if he made reckless use of his refugee “weapon.”
The EU-Turkey relationship has undoubtedly entered a difficult period. But the refugee issue is just part of the broader canvas of Turkey’s relations with the West that encompasses Syria, jihadism, and relations with players such as Russia and Iran.
Immigration still can severely upset Europe and border management is a perpetual task, but the drama of mass crossings of European borders has few chances of repeating itself.