Why Gerald Knaus’s proposal for a second EU-Turkey migration deal cannot work

The Syrian regime’s advance on Idlib brought Europe’s attention sharply back to the issue of migration, as Turkey and the European Union squared off on who should accept responsibility for 3.5 million people who could be killed or displaced if Syrian dictator Bashar Assad were allowed to conquer the country’s last opposition-held province.

Turkey brought a 2016 deal it struck with the European Union to halt migration back to the negotiating table by allowing thousands of migrants to head to the border with Europe. But that deal, and the updated version that its architect, the Austrian sociologist Gerald Knaus, is proposing, are based on the false assumption that the EU must close its borders to refugees to remain stable. Refugees do not cause EU destabilisation; poor leadership does.

The problem of mass influxes of refugees in the Mediterranean would not have occurred if the international community had held to its responsibility to protect populations under threat of atrocities, as endorsed in the 2005 U.N. World Summit, before it was too late.

Moreover, the 2016 deal to halt migration to Europe has proven practically unworkable because legal contradictions have resulted in mass overcrowding on Greek islands, and the new deal appears set to disregard refugees’ basic human rights.

EU political leaders have repeated endlessly that the mass influx of refugees from 2015 onwards caused destabilisation by populist-nationalist movements across the continent.

However, it also led to “Refugees Welcome” volunteers’ movements springing up persistently across Europe, despite the EU’s political leadership mostly choosing anti-migration policies. Evidently, it is not necessarily the case that mass refugee influxes cause destabilisation.

I believe the European Council has significantly overestimated the frequency of populist-nationalist opinions in Europe, because it has not fully understood how much Russian influence operations have used the so-called migrant crisis to promote divisive populist-nationalism and fascism.

Much of the furore around the issue may have been fuelled by inauthentic activity promoted in those Russian operations. The nearest proxy measure by contrast is Pew polling in 2018, which found that 77 percent of EU citizens support taking in refugees.

During the mass influx of migrants between 2015 and 2016, Knaus was listened to more than all the human rights organisations in the International Federation for Human Rights, more even than the European Parliament, because he offered EU leaders a plan to assuage their fears about the populist-nationalist movements destabilising the European liberal and social democratic majorities.

The appetite for Knaus’s plan is based on the assumption that mass influxes of refugees to the EU cause destabilisation because they strengthen populist-nationalists. This is a post-hoc fallacy: Whether refugee mass influxes cause political destabilisation or not depends on intermediate factors, most importantly political leadership.

The returns mechanism of the 2016 deal is based on assuming that Turkey is a safe third country for refugees, according to the human rights standards in European law. But this was found to be true in only 0.06 percent of cases up to May 7, 2018.

Testing if Turkey is a safe third country individually – the legal requirement to return a refugee – delays procedures, usually by many months up to a few years, and this causes the overcrowding on the Greek islands. That provides more material basis for the populist-nationalist agitation against refugees and propaganda against the EU. It is worse than useless for stabilisation.

Knaus calls for relocation from the islands to the mainland, and from the Greek mainland to other EU countries, and for faster procedures. But his plan for reducing arrival rates while respecting refugees’ rights is unrealistic, and it would cause yet more overcrowding on the islands, providing even more materials and a focal point for populist-nationalist agitprop.

A key assumption of his plan is still that the EU can return Syrian refugees to Turkey based on designating Turkey as a safe third country, but that only resulted in 23 Syrians returned to Turkey and 38,358 accepted in Greece by May 7, 2018, a return rate of 0.06 percent on that specific legal basis.

His apparent concern for refugees’ rights becomes more questionable when he proposes for the second deal with Turkey to remove the appeals committees and the suspensive effect of appeals, aiming to increase the Syrian returns rate to 90 percent. Since the European Asylum Support Office and the Greek legal system found in 99.94 percent of Syrian cases that they could not be returned because they were deemed by European law to be especially vulnerable, mostly due to trauma, or Turkey could not be classed as a safe third country, this proposal means enforcing miscarriages of justice without any effective remedy.

When EU political leaders enact nativist politics, they legitimise populist-nationalism and erode the social unacceptability of fascism, as demonstrated by the mob attacks against refugees and aid workers on the Greek islands this year.

European governments have disallowed adequate regular routes to asylum in Europe, so 90 percent of recognised refugees had to enter irregularly. The real injustice is that the richest, safest people in the world are doing everything possible to minimise our responsibility for resettling refugees, not that people are crossing our borders irregularly to reach safety.

Politically enacting respect for strangers in need of care and hospitality is a perfect opportunity to reinforce EU values, legitimacy, cohesion and stability. It would restore trust between European civil society and institutions, which would reduce populism.

What can be gained anyway from preferring to compromise with those who wish to destroy the EU or to leave it? Would not siding with the majority of European civil society and for refugees be a better bet for re-stabilising the EU?


© Ahval English

The views expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.