BRUSSELS – As thousands of people near Turkey’s border with Greece wait to cross over to the European Union, a migration deal the EU and Turkey reached four years ago has become a political football.The two sides accuse each other of failing to respect their commitments.
The EU says Turkey is waving migrants through to Europe. The Turkish government says the 27-nation bloc based in Brussels owes it money.
Agreed in March 2016, the EU-Turkey statement was intended to prevent crises like the one playing out on their borders now. The deal called for Turkey to halt the flow of Europe-bound migrants and refugees in exchange for up to 6 billion euros ($6.7 billion) in aid for Syrian refugees on its territory, fast-track EU membership and visa-free travel to Europe for Turkish citizens.
The deal slashed the number of asylum-seekers arriving each day to the Greek islands by 97%. Yet Turkey’s membership talks languish at a virtual standstill. The EU also says Ankara still hasn't met all the conditions for allowing Turkish people to enter Europe’s borderless, 26-nation zone for short travel and business visits.
The EU was also supposed to update its customs arrangements with Turkey.
Turkish presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin lamented this week that the visa agreement “never materialized. The updating of the Customs Union... was never realized. The new (membership) chapters were again, one of the issues that never materialized.”
But far more than those incentives, the main point of dispute is money. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, fearing a new wave of refugees from Idlib in northern Syria, has demanded more European aid. He says the promised EU money is coming too slowly and is simply not enough anyway.
“The 6 billion euros that should have been sent for the refugees is waiting there like a slow-motion film,” Kalin said.
The EU begs to differ.
“We continue paying for 1.7 million refugees every month, cash money. And we continue paying for the teachers, for 500,000 migrant children," EU Migration Commissioner Ylva Johansson said. "We continue paying for the medical teams. So we are sticking to our part of the agreement with Turkey.”
The EU does not pay money directly to Ankara, but rather disburses it to Syrian refugees through partners involved in migrants projects there. It’s used to provide humanitarian assistance, education, health, municipal infrastructure, and socio-economic support to Syrians in Turkey.
That may grate on Erdogan. Turkey hosts some 4 million refugees, far more than the 27 EU countries combined, and more may be coming. Cash in government hands is easier to use.
The money was provided in two 3 billion-euro installments. Within 18 months, 3 billion euros worth of contracts were prepared. More than 70 projects were launched. Over 2 billion euros were actually paid out since money is usually only disbursed when contracts are completed.
Today, the entire 6 billion is “fully mobilized” with 4.7 billion contracted out and 3.2 billion actually disbursed, the EU says.
Turkey says only half of the 6 billion euros has been disbursed, which is almost technically correct, but Ankara complains that it has spent some 36 billion euros ($40 billion) of its own money on the refugees.
Erdogan’s decision to wave migrants through to Europe last week - a move slammed as “blackmail” by EU officials - got Brussels’ attention. EU Council President Charles Michel, the EU’s top diplomat and its crisis commissioner,have all visited Ankara this week to try to placate the Turkish president.
“We hear the problems and concerns of Turkey. We are ready to consider or to try to find a solution," Peter Stano, a spokesman for EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, said Thursday. "But not at a time when we have an unacceptable situation; a situation of pressure, of encouraging refugees or migrants to go to the European border, an atmosphere of confrontation.”
While Europe seems certain to provide more funds, no method for disbursing more has been decided upon, Stano said. And in any case, “there is no formal offer” on the table, he added. .
As Borrell visited Ankara, the European Commission announced that it was providing 170 million euros in humanitarian aid to help people in Syria, including 60 million euros to address the humanitarian crisis in northwest Syria.
Suzan Fraser in Ankara contributed to this report.