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Monday, 24 October 2016

EU, Turkey and Refugee Policy

Altuğ Günal (Academic Visitor, St Antony’s College, Oxford)

Gerald Knaus, founding chairman of the European Stability Initiative and father of the EU-Turkey Deal, gave a well-attended lunchtime seminar on October 19th, 2016, with Ezgi Başaran in the chair. The main focus of discussion was whether the deal could be properly implemented by the parties.Knaus began by criticising the tale Hungarian PM Viktor Orban had been telling throughout Europe. Orban’s main target on the refugee issue was Germany, whose citizens he labelled as emotional, incompatible, sentimental and confused; he had criticised Germany’s refugee policy as insincere, believing that Europeans should have fought against accepting refugees from Germany or anywhere else. The EU had also been a target of Orban’s attacks, as he claimed that “the people in Brussels” were trying to destroy nation states by settling large number of foreigners against the will of their voters.


Knaus also regretted Orban’s and his allies’ limited understanding of the refugee issue, with their belief that it could be solved by strict control of the borders; indeed, Orban had argued that a new border should, if necessary, have been established to the north of Greece. In his view, European Civilization could melt away if large numbers of refugees were not prevented from entering.

A further concern of Knaus was Orban’s attitude to the Refugee Convention. In 2015, the Hungarian PM had maintained that the right to live prevailed over all other rights; therefore, protecting his citizens was more important for him than either the Refugee Convention or any other convention. Knaus saw Marine le Pen’s Front National, the Swedish Democrats, and the other European far-right parties, as among Orban’s natural allies, while Angela Merkel and Dutch-EU Presidency constituted the two biggest obstacles to Orban’s refugee “solutions”. But Knaus warned that it was the mainstream political parties that Europe needed to watch.

For Knaus, the ground zero of the debate was in Germany. He was generally positive on Germany’s and Angela Merkel’s policy on refugees, saying that Germany had done a fabulous job in accommodating a huge number of refugees. He believed that this success was achieved firstly through support from the public and the political elite, and secondly by administrative capacity. Inn his view, the story of Germany showed what was possible when there was political will and contrasted with what had happened in Greece.

The main idea of the Merkel plan was that the Refugee Convention could only be preserved through political consensus. But Knaus had been warned in Germany not to push for European solutions because, since the consensus in Europe was illiberal rather than liberal, a European solution could also be an illiberal one. Thus, if the goal was to preserve consensus, even in Germany and Sweden, the process of disorderly arrivals in large numbers needed to be turned into orderly arrivals. This was what Merkel had begun to push initially.

Knaus insisted that a liberal policy on borders and asylum in Europe should be based on the protection of the integrity of the Refugee Convention and its Article 33[1]. This basically says, “If somebody arrives at our borders, we do not send them back, without making sure that there is no possibility of being killed or tortured at where we send them.” But the second paragraph of Article 33 essentially says, “The first paragraph does not count if there is a threat to security for your government.” That is what Orban counts on.

However, for Knaus, protecting the integrity of the Refugee Convention and Article 33 means: “You should not push the security threat issue to the limit. For instance, just because there are few criminals or terrorists among Syrian refugees, you should not abuse the second paragraph to ban arrivals or suspend the asylum process. This should not be used as a pretext.”

Knaus’s second concern regarding the integrity of Article 33 related to institutions. He recalled that the institutions in Europe were designed for small numbers of refugees, and when large numbers came, they failed. In his analysis, some European states, faced with this problem, simply did not know what to do and had to detain them, or let them leave or followed fake asylum procedures. In 2010, investigations had shown that a number of asylum procedures in some European countries were fake, and that the interviews were simply cut and pasted from other interviews. In Knaus’s view, this was what was happened when people were disorganised or under pressure, but where prompt action was needed.

Knaus also criticised those European states who saw trapping refugees in Greece, and closing the Balkan route, as a solution. Angela Merkel had also raised here voice against this unreasonable suggestion, saying “Yes it could benefit Germany, but this is not a European solution”. Knaus too thought this would not work, since it was impossible to control borders completely and prevent all refugees from passing through them. His solution was to combine fast and quality asylum procedures at the border with improved standards of reception and protection. This, he said, was indeed the key element of the Turkey-EU Deal. But he believed the deal could only work if EU the managed to ensure that, for instance, the Afghans in Greece could return to Turkey if it could be determined that they as individuals were safe in Turkey and if Turkey would promise a full credible asylum process to those people. He reminded that there was no issue of law as such, some human rights organizations had stated, since the law in Turkey was in fact very good, and the agreement was a statement rather than a law. However, the problem was one of implementation and resources, particularly the inadequate number of translators and interpreters. Finally, he praised Turkey’s efforts, recalling that Europe had an interest in Turkey’s maintaining the rule of law, and defended the idea that visa liberation should be linked directly to Turkey’s success in ensuring it was a safe third country.

[1] For the original document see: http://www.unhcr.org/4ca34be29.pdf

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