Externalizing the Migration Issue is Costly for the EU
On February 29, Turkish coast guards and border-security officers received the order to allow migrants to flee unhindered toward Greece. More than 20,000 people were ready to cross into the country, adding further pressure to a reception system that was already struggling. The Greek government deployed troops at the border and declared it would stop accepting new asylum applications, and that migrants would be returned without any control of their status and without being registered. These two actions are in full violation of EU law and contravene the 1951 Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, particularly its provision on non-refoulement.
Greece’s government also decided to invoke Article 78.3 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU), which envisages the adoption of provisional measures for the benefit of the interested member state in the event of an emergency characterized by a sudden inflow of nationals of third countries. Today, an EU Justice and Home Affairs Council is held in Brussels to discuss the situation at the Greek border.
While the current context is far from the 2015 migration crisis, the two events are related. This new emergency is the result of the solutions the EU took at the time. Initially, the EU tried to reform of its main tools in this field, such as the Common European Asylum System (CEAS) and the Dublin regulation, aiming to render the union’s migration regime more resilient to the high number of migrants headed to Europe. However, member states were not willing to accept more cooperation and burden-sharing in the field of migration. This was exemplified by the rejection by several of them to re-allocating refugees in their territories under the framework of the EU relocation mechanism.
Therefore, the EU was left with just one option: adopting a stronger externalization approach to manage the fluxes headed toward the EU. In 2016, the EU concluded an agreement with Turkey aimed at stopping migrants coming from the country through the “Eastern Mediterranean route.” The agreement envisaged the establishment of a 1:1 scheme mechanism, according to which for every Syrian returned to Turkey from Greece, another would be resettled from Turkey to the EU. The union also provided a total of €6 billion to Turkey for the management of refugees.
From 2016 onward, the EU started to focus more consistently on externalization, giving up to the reform of tools such as the CEAS and the Dublin regulation.
The agreement with Turkey was a crucial moment for the EU. It was first presented as a temporary measure to provide an initial solution to an emergency. Yet, the success of the agreement in reducing the number of people headed to Greece resulted in a change of perspective for the EU, as the deal started to be considered as a new way to bring order into migration flows. This marked an essential change in the attitude of the EU toward migration. From 2016 onward, it started to focus more consistently on externalization, giving up to the reform of tools such as the CEAS and the Dublin regulation. The EU began to rely more on third countries to stop people before they reach the European soil. This follows a rationale according to which the closer controls can be placed to the source of migration, the less likely it is that migrants will be able to reach Europe.
The crisis erupting now in Greece can be traced back to this rationale. The adoption of a stronger externalization approach for curbing migration at whatever cost provided third countries with strong leverage to use against the EU, as Turkey is showing. The inability of member states to agree on the establishment of a full-fledged EU asylum system has exposed the union to the acts of its neighbors, underlining a vital weakness in European security. Notwithstanding that, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and European Council President Charles Michel on March 3 agreed on the necessity to focus on strengthening the external borders of the EU, providing support to Greece, and respecting the agreement with Turkey, which is perceived as mutually beneficial.
The crisis developing in Greece is a clear example of why externalization represents a security threat for the union. This approach creates a loophole in EU security that could be exploited by third countries to put pressure on the union; for example, through the weaponization of migration fluxes, as Turkey is doing. This context proves how crucial it is for the EU and its member states to finally agree on a serious reform of the migration regime. Only a truly EU-wide asylum system based on harmonization, burden sharing, and solidarity (as already stated in Articles 78 and 80 of the TFEU) can solve this vital weakness.
Migration is a structural phenomenon that requires structural solutions, and it will not be possible for the EU to continue to address it through extemporaneous measures and the outsourcing of its management. What the EU is endangering with its current approach are not just its fundamental values (such as the protection and respect of human rights), but also the life and dignity of refugees who have the right to ask for asylum in Europe.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.