November 28, 2016

TSG IntelBrief: A Renewed Flood of Refugees into Europe

• On November 25, Turkish President Erdogan warned the EU that Turkey would open its border gates and allow for another influx of refugees into Europe if talks regarding Turkey’s EU membership were halted.

• The consequences of a renewed chaotic flood of refugees could be a tipping point for elections in France, Germany, and Austria.

• The March 2016 refugee deal between the EU and Turkey has always been problematic, and Turkey’s path towards accession is increasingly dubious.

• The underlying drivers of the refugee crisis will not be resolved in the foreseeable future; the issue will only grow more challenging in an atmosphere of heightened political tensions.

The refugee crisis in Europe has already promised to be a significant factor in upcoming elections in France, Germany, and Austria; the threat of a renewed flood of refugees will only make the issue an even greater factor in influencing the political landscape of several leading EU members. While the refugee crisis in Europe never went away, it has been largely stemmed after the March 2016 deal between Turkey and the EU, which called for Turkey to increase efforts to control the number of refugees traveling to Europe irregularly in exchange for financial help and accelerated talks of Turkish membership in the EU. A variety of factors are now combining in the closing weeks of 2016 that could generate increased instability for EU members.

The seemingly endless talks between Ankara and Brussels over Turkey’s accession into the EU have regressed in the months since July 2016 coup attempt in Turkey. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has used Turkey’s central role in the refugee crisis as leverage with the EU, but has not seen enough gains to offset the costs of caring for over 3 million desperate people. He has previously threatened to put refugees on buses bound for the EU, but the harsh rhetoric has yet to turn into reality. Recent events indicate that the trend of periodic warnings followed by compromise may be breaking down—with enormous consequences.

On November 25, President Erdogan threatened to open Turkey’s border gates, which would allow for massive numbers of refugees to cross into Europe. Relations between Turkey and the West are at their nadir, with Austria openly calling for an end of negotiations over Turkey’s EU membership, and other member states expressing hope for continued dialogue simply because the alternative is so negative. It remains unclear whether Turkey will open its borders—especially given its concerns of letting suspected coup plotters escape—but the stakes of Erdogan’s recent gamesmanship are unusually high.

As witnessed in the US presidential election and the UK ‘Brexit’ referendum, recent elections in the West have defied conventional wisdom and revealed deep dissatisfaction with a host of issues; immigration has been chief among them. In the EU, the issue of immigration has increasingly blurred with the issue of mass migration, as Europe has seen massive numbers of migrants fleeing war and poverty in the last several years. It is difficult to overstate the societal and political concerns many citizens of France, Germany, and Austria have regarding both the near and long-term consequences of refugee resettlement. These concerns have manifested themselves in the rise of nationalist and populist parties in Europe, which stand to make significant political gains in the coming weeks and months. Putting aside the extremist fringes that whip up xenophobic sentiment and encourage violence, there is a growing trend of nativist politics that runs counter to the ideals of the EU, yet cannot be dismissed as the fears of a mob. 

The conflicts and economic hardships that are driving the refugee crisis will not be addressed in the foreseeable future, and will likely worsen in places such as Syria and Afghanistan. The numbers of refugees who have already tried to make their way to the EU are enormous, but pale to those who have potentially yet to come. The migrant deal between Turkey and the EU was always problematic and temporary, yet the prospects of maintaining the deal—to say nothing of improving upon it—are increasingly bleak if current trends continue.


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