18 March 2016

What’s in the deal?

At today’s meeting of EU leaders, the EU and Turkey have agreed on a new set of measures to tackle the on-going migrant crisis. These are the key points of the deal:

  • As of Sunday 20 March, all new irregular migrants reaching the Greek islands from Turkey will be returned to Turkey. Compared to previous drafts, a line has been added to make it clear that the deal does not contemplate “any kind of collective expulsion.”
  • Greece will take care of registering the newly-arrived migrants and process any asylum claims they may lodge. Turkey will take back all migrants who do not apply for asylum or whose asylum applications are unsuccessful.
  • For every Syrian national that is returned to Turkey from the Greek islands, another Syrian national will be resettled from Turkey to the EU. The deal specifies that “priority will be given to migrants that have not previously entered or tried to enter the EU irregularly.” For the time being, the EU is offering to resettle a maximum of 72,000 people under this ‘one for one’ mechanism – which will be discontinued if that number is exceeded.

Unsurprisingly, the agreement comes with a number of sweeteners for Turkey:

  • Quicker visa liberalisation for Turkish citizens travelling into the Schengen area. Provided that Turkey meets all the 72 conditions set out in its ‘Visa Liberalisation Roadmap’, the aim is to lift visa requirements “at the latest by the end of June 2016.” This would need approval from the EU Council of Ministers and the European Parliament.
  • The EU already pledged €3 billion in funding for Turkey. Under the deal struck today, EU member states have committed to potentially mobilising an additional €3 billion up to the end of 2018 – though only when the first tranche “is about to be used to the full” and provided that the desired results are being achieved.
  • Turkey has also obtained a pledge to “re-energise” its EU membership negotiations. The final deal includes far more specific wording on this issue. The European Commission will next month put forward a proposal to open negotiations over Chapter 33 – which concerns the funding of the EU budget and is aimed at making sure that candidate countries have the administrative capacity to correctly calculate and pay their share in once they become full members of the EU.

What are the implications for the UK?

Needless to say, implementing the agreement will be far from easy. My colleague Nina Schick had a thorough look at the main legal and political issues that may arise – so I won’t rehash all of that.

It is, however, important to clarify a few points with regard to where the EU-Turkey deal leaves the UK – as it is easy to see the agreement being brought into the broader EU referendum debate.

First, the UK is not a member of the passport-free Schengen area. This means the British government will not need to grant visa-free travel to Turkish citizens. Second, visa liberalisation is not the same as the freedom to live and work in the EU. What we are talking about is “short stays of 90 days within any 180-day period for business, touristic or family purposes.”

Third, participation in the resettlement of Syrians from Turkey is voluntary for all EU member states – meaning that the agreement does not imply Britain taking in more refugees. And even if participation had been mandatory, the UK would have been able to use its opt-out from EU asylum policy anyway. Nonetheless, the UK is already contributing to the €3 billion refugee facility for Turkey – and would therefore have to increase its contribution accordingly if the EU decided to mobilise the additional €3 billion by the end of 2018.

Fourth, Turkey becoming a fully-fledged member of the EU remains a very distant prospect – as pretty much everyone, from German Chancellor Angela Merkel to European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, has been repeating over the past few days. Furthermore, the UK has a veto on the accession of new countries to the EU – and even on the opening of each individual ‘chapter’ as part of EU membership negotiations.

For all these reasons, it is not obvious how being out of the EU would make a substantial difference from the UK’s perspective.