Can This Man Save The Europe-Turkey Migrant Deal?

02:58 PM 12-9-2016

Article about Gerald Knaus’ plan that stopped the flood of refugees from Turkey into Europe. Gerald Knaus is a member of the IWP Supervisory Board.The article was published in Foreign Policy\
Knaus is the founding chairman of a small Berlin-based think tank called the European Stability Initiative, or ESI, developed a plan how to deal with migrant crisis. The plan was picked up by the German government

“The most important thing when it comes to policy is that Angela Merkel accepted our plan for how to move to an orderly process,” he wrote, linking to a YouTube clip of the chancellor speaking. “The big issue now is to persuade those she needs to persuade and implement it. This will be very hard.”

Knaus hoped, cautiously, that this would be the turning point in managing Europe’s dilemma. Instead, he says, a series of missteps and errors ensued. Valuable time was wasted, and talks stalled. Now, nearly a year after Merkel’s TV promise, the architect of the EU-Turkey migration deal is warning it’s about to fail. And he’s doing all he can to rescue it.

But a year ago all of that was still to come.

“I think so far this has been going rather well,” Knaus added in his note before signing off.

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On paper, the ESI’s plan appeared straightforward: Turkey was to take back all new irregular migrants who reached Greek territory after March 20. In return, the European Union would provide Ankara financial support to help care for refugees there and open the doors to visa-free travel for Turks; EU member states would then resettle Syrian refugees directly from Turkey, providing legal, safe access to asylum.

In the real world, the plan has unraveled quickly.

Greece was the first snag. Greek officials were supposed to screen and send new arrivals back to Turkey as soon as possible. Brussels demanded that Athens create a series of “hotspot” registration centers to speed up the process. It agreed to provide more than 200 million euros in funding and send personnel — asylum officers, translators, guards — from other member states to help process applications and patrol the coasts.

But more than 50,000 refugees and migrants were already stranded on the mainland and islands — a staggering burden for a country already crippled by economic crisis. It took several months to organize the hotspots, and Greece’s asylum agency still lacks adequate manpower and facilities. By mid-June, around 140 European asylum officers and guards were helping improve the situation, but hundreds more are still required. Asylum-seekers are often left in limbo for months with no income, no ability to work, and little supervision if they decide to migrate elsewhere in Europe.

The EU vowed in September 2015 to resettle up to 160,000 refugees from Greece and Italy, but, according to the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR), only a little more than 3,000 have been relocated so far, largely due to a lack of willingness among member states to open their doors. Slovakia and Hungary have even launched legal challenges to the bloc’s redistribution plans.

Then, after the failed coup attempt in Turkey, Ankara pulled back its officers in Greece who were supposed to oversee deportations, putting a crucial part of the agreement on indefinite hold. By the start of August, only 468 irregular migrants had been returned to Turkey from Greece, and just 849 Syrian refugees had been resettled in the EU under the scheme. Greece’s camps and reception centers remain overcrowded and chaotic.

Meanwhile, deep cracks are showing in the EU’s relationship with Turkey, a linchpin of the deal. Ankara has been a controversial partner from the start. Many have called the country’s human rights record into question, raising serious doubts over whether European officials should treat it as a safe country of return for those fleeing war. July’s failed coup attempt and the subsequent crackdown have only amplified these concerns. Ankara, for its part, is threatening to reopen the floodgates back toward Greece if the EU doesn’t deliver on its promise of visa liberalization, even though Turkey hasn’t met all of the requirements and, in the wake of the coup attempt, seems increasingly unlikely to do so.

The number of migrants and refugees arriving in Greece has dropped off dramatically in comparison to the previous year: Frontex, the EU’s border management agency, reported the number of arrivals was down 90 percent in April, as migrants believed the new agreement was being implemented or would be eventually. German officials are predicting around 300,000 refugees and migrants will arrive in the country in 2016, a far cry from 1.1 million in 2015.

Still, officials registered a spike in new arrivals in August, and even small fluctuations in the number of migrants threaten to derail any progress that has been made in Greece. Meanwhile, policymakers in Europe have only grown more skeptical over time. Greek Migration Minister Ioannis Mouzalas told the German newspaper Bild that Europe needed to come up with a Plan B. German lawmakers have stepped up pressure on Merkel to push back against Ankara’s authoritarian turn, with some calling on Brussels to break off talks over EU accession for Turkey entirely. And a survey conducted by the market research group Emnid for Bild’s Sunday edition, Bild am Sonntag, showed 52 percent of Germans want their government to scrap the deal.

Wiry and boyish at 46, Knaus says he never intended for himself, or the ESI, to become personally involved in arguments over how the migration deal should be implemented, and there’s good reason to believe him. Migration is just one of many issues in the think tank’s purview, and its staff wasn’t sure the organization’s sudden visibility was wise. In part, that’s because should their efforts to fix the deal fail, it could affect the ESI’s reputation on other projects.

But it’s also because any involvement in the debate over migration is emotionally and psychologically taxing. As the think tank has stepped up its campaign to save the deal, public attention on the small institute has grown. It includes gross exaggeration in German media outlets (one regional headline proclaimed Knaus the “man saving Merkel”) to angry emails and tweets from members of the far right, who accuse the ESI of tearing apart Germany’s cultural fabric by importing foreigners or claim it is driven by American interests (the ESI has twice received funding from George Soros’s Open Society Foundations for projects on human rights and Azerbaijan).

“Think tankers forget that the moment you step into the public arena and try to influence real things, there’s so much blowback,” he said. “This is such an emotional debate. Very often, it has very little to do with facts.”“Think tankers forget that the moment you step into the public arena and try to influence real things, there’s so much blowback,” he said. “This is such an emotional debate. Very often, it has very little to do with facts.”

But he and his colleagues felt they had little choice but to roll up their sleeves when they witnessed the EU “dropping the ball” on implementing their strategy. In its missive laying out the plan, the ESI had argued it was crucial to move quickly, before the situation ballooned out of control and before right-wing groups seized on the chaos for their gain. Yet instead of making Germany take the lead in negotiations with Turkey, European leaders handed over responsibility to the notoriously slow-moving and less influential European Commission. It took until March 18 — some five months after Merkel’s TV announcement — for the EU and Turkey to finally ink an agreement.

Knaus was also disappointed by the inflammatory rhetoric surrounding visa liberalization for Turkey. He had envisioned Ankara’s guarantee of safe and humane conditions for all refugees as the central requirement for receiving visa waiver; instead, Europe stuck to its checklist of 72 political and legal benchmarks. Knaus also believes the outcry over Turkey’s commitment to human rights misses the point: The country might not meet the legal definition of a safe country of origin right now, he says, but it can become one with financial support and close monitoring by human rights groups. And it is, after all, Europe’s only real hope in stemming illegal immigration. “The core idea here is that you can’t control a sea border without cooperating with your neighbor on the other side,” he said. “You can’t build fences on water.”

Knaus becomes visibly agitated when discussing the situation in Greece’s refugee camps. He’d expected European officials to deploy ample expertise on the ground to help create a credible, well-functioning asylum system in Greece. But identifying and training personnel has proved to be a bigger hurdle than expected. And EU member states’ resistance to resettling refugees has been troubling, he says: With the exception of Germany and Sweden, most European countries have turned their backs on their international obligations. “The policy at the moment is not humane; it’s not human rights compatible. It’s basically detention,” Knaus said, shifting his gaze to his hands. “It’s like the old man in The Muppet Show who sits in the balcony and watches things as they play out.… They are content with watching as Greece buckles.”

The ESI’s refugee plan was designed to be a sturdy table. But European policymakers had already begun hacking away at each of its legs. As Knaus watched the deal start to wobble, he jumped into action.

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