Can we really talk about a refugee “crisis”? Or is the wave of asylum seekers coming to the EU the new normal?
Gerald Knaus: There is an often-quoted cliché that what is happening is a reflection of a global movement of the poor who have to seek refuge because of global warming, failing states, and conflicts. But if we look closer, we will discover that for the most of the developed countries, it is simply not true. The number of refugees in Canada, Australia and Japan is very low. We are talking about 10,000 people per year.
Even in the EU, the normal number of refugees was about 100,000 per year. That is normal for Europe. What we have now is a very specific crisis, which has a very specific reason: the humanitarian catastrophe in Syria.
It generates a huge number of refugees. In terms of a number of refugees per capita, the worst situation is in Lebanon and Jordan. But it is Turkey which has the highest number of refugees in absolute terms – while being situated right next to the EU.
Is there any chance of a common European solution to the crisis?
There are many things that the EU countries can do together in the current system. But let us be clear – all these things, these reforms would take years to agree on and implement. Just look at the Schengen zone. It is a very popular system. Yet, the initial treaty between just Belgium, France, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and West Germany took ten years to conclude.
The European Union can of course devise many useful reforms to alleviate the current refugee crisis. It could be, for example, better common standards for the treatment of refugees, a replacement for the Dublin system, which clearly did not work at any point in the last ten years, or relocation between the EU countries, so that the refugees will not all end up in Greece.
The real solution however needs to stop people from coming to the EU at all. If they reach Greece, they are already in the EU and part of the European asylum system.
But all of these things will take time. They all should be designed before we return to the normal situation, when the number of asylum seekers for the whole EU is 100,000, 150,000 people per year.
So these ideas would not be useful in the current crisis?
None of them would come fast enough to make a difference in dealing with a very urgent demand at the moment, which is to control the border at the Aegean Sea.
Would you say, then, that restoring control on the Turkish-Greek border at the Aegean is the primary task the EU should focus on?
Yes. The EU needs to do two things at the moment. The first one is (to) control the Aegean. But this is connected with another issue, which is showing solidarity with countries hosting a large number of refugees, such as Turkey.
If we do not cooperate with these countries, especially with Turkey, we will not be able to control the Aegean border, which is one of the shortest and safest routes to the EU. It is only 2 to 10 kilometres of calm seas from Turkey, after which a refugee is in Greece and cannot be returned. We need a working relationship with them based on mutual interests.
Some member states are reluctant to cooperate with Turkey, though.
It is not a matter of a political choice. It is not as if we have any alternatives. We cannot build a fence on water. Without Turkish cooperation, we cannot control the Aegean border, and the refugees will keep arriving in Greece. Once people arrive in Greece, they will make their way to Germany, eventually, as they already are in the EU.
What do we need then from Turkey, precisely?
What we need is Turkey taking refugees back when they reach Greece.
How can we convince them to do that?
For Turkey to commit to such an internally unpopular move, the EU has to offer resettlement of some of the refugees that are already in Turkey, directly from Turkey.
The current debate about cooperation revolves more around money, though.
It is not about the money. Giving Turkey more money would not diminish the number of people wanting to come to the EU.
Some would say that dealing with Turkey at the moment, given the recent criticism of the country by the European Commission, would go against the grain of the European values.
Cooperation with Turkey on the refugee issue is not a dirty deal, with the EU selling off its ideals to Turkey. There has to be trust between both sides. A deal would be based on shared interests. It is about finding a fair and common solution to the fact that there are already four million Syrians living outside of Syria.
Why could they not stay in Turkey? Why make a deal?
It would be simply unfair for all of them to stay in Turkey. And in this way, they would be able to take people back from Greece.
Why is it so important for them to take back these people?
If they do not do that, refugees will keep arriving in the EU at the current rate.
What can we offer Turkey to make the deal fair? You said it is not about the money. So what is it about?
We need two main things from Turkey. The first one is their agreement to take back refugees who reach Greece. The other one is to offer Syrians who will remain in Turkey a credible perspective of building a life there.
These two things will really make a difference for the EU, and the EU will get them only if Turks realise the EU is making a serious offer. There are a number of things the EU can come up with, but there are some indispensable conditions.
The first one is to offer a visa-free movement to the EU for Turkish tourists, as the Poles could do in the 1990s or Bulgarians and Romanians could since 2000. The EU has to move now, so everything will be ready in a few months’ time when Turkey will fulfil formal conditions for visa-free travel.
This is sine qua non, but some of the EU member states which are invested the most in the refugee crisis – such as Germany or Sweden – should also offer to resettle some of the refugees directly. We could also, say, build classrooms for Syrian children who are in Turkey.
But such a deal would be quite controversial in Europe which is currently experiencing a rise in popularity of anti-immigrant and anti-refugee parties. How would you propose to convince Europeans that the EU needs to deal with Turkey – and to adopt such a positive strategy towards refugees as you lay out?
The rhetoric of the populist parties are based on impossible policy prescriptions. For example, how can we control refugees? Fences do not work, as we have seen with Hungary. They only make people find other ways, in this case, through Croatia and Slovenia. They do not diminish the number of refugees trying to find asylum.