EU-Turkey Refugee Agreement and possible scenarios after the 2019 European Parliament Elections

This analysis focuses on the 2016 EU-Turkey refugee deal. Almost three years after it came into force, the effectiveness of this treaty and its real benefits for the European and Turkish people are still much debated. Over time, many analysts have come to criticize its intrinsic inefficiency and unaccountability while EU National leaders have denounced a lack of clarity on the EU-taxpayers money invested. This paper aims to provide the reader with an analysis on the future developments of the agreement, in a time of profound changes for the political structure of the European Union. In order to do that, the report will be divided into three main parts. First, an initial overview of the treaty’s main values and concepts will lay out the literary and academic foundation for a more insightful discussion. Second, a foresight analysis chapter will present the reader with 3 possible political and social scenarios for Europe, focusing on a relative short political time frame. This analysis has posed the next European political elections of May 2019 at its time core, with the intent of giving the reader food for thought on possible subsequent repercussions following the vote. The question that inevitably arises and that this analysis will try to answer concerns the different pathways the 2016 treaty may face in the aftermath of the forthcoming electoral vote. Finally, the conclusion will summarize what previously discussed, providing critical points to take away from this discussion.

The 2016 EU-Turkey deal: an overview

Simply acknowledging the 2016 EU-Turkey deal as an agreement to keep Middle Eastern refugees out of Europe in exchange for money might be misleading. On the contrary, on a more general note, the agreement has important political and social ramifications, which aim to tackle not merely the hardly controllable illegal immigration through the Aegean Sea, but also define the geopolitical relations between Brussels and one of the major players of the Mediterranean chessboard: Turkey.

Arguably, the pact builds on two main normative pillars. The first is that for every single Middle Eastern refugee sent back to Turkey another would be relocated to Europe (Kingsley, 2016). This is often acknowledged as the “one in, one out” soul of the deal and served to reassure the counterpart that Brussels was not going to leave the Turkish population alone on this endeavour. On the contrary, Europe was to be the real actor on play, pledging a safe home and place in Europe for every Syrian refugee, who would have been found in legal need and in compliance of the requirements. The second pillar of the treaty, on the other hand, is that the European Union was to encourage a visa-free environment for Turkish citizens coming to Europe. This, alongside the welcoming of an upgrading of the current inter partes Customs Union, demonstrates the political essence of the settlement, which was signed with great enthusiasm from both sides on March 18, 2016 (the Turkish government talked about a “game-changer” agreement, able to “completely stem irregular migration) (Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Republic of Turkey, 2016).

The 2016 deal and the present: what are the ways forward?

There might be several political reasons behind an agreement of this sort. While the government in Ankara wished the fastening of EU endeavours in conceding a more accommodating visa procedure for its citizens (if not a real visa-free area), Brussels needed a quick solution to the migration crisis in the East, in order to bring results home and stop the crescent wave of populism and anti-establishment sentiment. The 2016 deal can therefore hardly be seen as only an anti-illegal migration deal, but rather as an opportunity exploited by both sides to achieve diverse political goals; the pact was capitalized on either reassuring the population that the government is working to provide an easier way into Europe and into the bigger European job market or showing commitment against illegal immigration and terrorism.

In this sense, it might be said that being a political agreement, the treaty is subject to political changes within the Union. The possible repercussions coming out of it can hardly be seen as merely social, or humanitarian, but they would rather radiate a plethora of political, geopolitical, economic and normative concerns. By containing issues of national security, social stability and political agreement for both sides, the treaty has inevitably been at the centre of the political debate both in Europe and Turkey, dividing parties between those in full support of it and those against.

This strong securitization and politicization of the treaty has two main negative repercussions. The first is a substantial shift of focus from the migration issue to the political nature of the deal. In this sense, migrants lose their centrality in their debate, appearing as mere bargaining chips at the negotiating table. At their place, politics becomes the new focal point, shaping the directions of the discussion.  The second is the political meaning of it. Leaders may threaten the discard or annulment of the treaty on the ground of political motives, to appeal to their electorates or to resolve political, and not humanitarian, issues. In this sense, the deal becomes highly vulnerable to political oscillations, both at the European, but also at the national level.

By placing the European elections date of 2019 as time of reference, this analysis is doing two things. First, it sets a time frame, within which the research will stretch its evaluation. This is fundamental in order to confine the number of economic, social and political variables in analysis. Second, and most importantly, it shows once again the supremacy of politics. The delicate political balances of the European Union and Turkey demonstrate the fragility of the pact. The collapse of the latter would not merely signify a peril for the Italian and European equilibrium, but also jeopardizing hundreds of thousands of lives of Syrian and Middle Eastern refugees, hoping to find a better life here in Europe.

The three scenarios

In the aftermath of the 2019 elections, many predetermined agreements might be put into questions, depending on the outcome of the vote itself. It is only natural to expect a specific political force to put first its own interest, and those of its electorate. In this sense, it might be useful to consider the possible results of the April electoral call in order to foresee feasible consequences.

Through the use of a comparative approach, it is possible to hypothesize three different scenarios. For all of them three major elements will be taken into account: the results of the election, the political essence of the Union and the hazard of the pact. The reason behind these three variables is simple. As far as the first two are concerned, they are motivated by the above-mentioned political spirit of the treaty.

The last element, instead, aims to evaluate to what extent can we expect the pact to represent a threat for the European Union and for the 28 Member States. In the past, the endurance of the pact has been endangered by leaders. For instance, in 2016 the Turkish leader Erdogan threatened to cancel it, had certain concessions not been made (Shaheen et al, 2016). This caused a strong sense of insecurity throughout the Union, already hardly hit by the refugee crisis and the 2008 financial breakdown. Many European citizens feared the arrival of a new migration wave. This reflected into the political sphere and can be seen as one of the causes of the current anti-establishment and anti-migration sentiment.

Scenario one: An evolutionary scenario

In the first scenario the conventional political parties of the Union have won the elections, conquering a stable majority and reclaiming a European widespread sentiment for a future evolution of the Union. This would inevitably tend towards a more supranational rather than intergovernmental entity. What I mean by that, is that the Union as a whole would then turn towards a weakening of the traditional sovereignty concept of the Member States, preferring a more extra-national political force. The natural and unspoken final target of this scenario is the political birth of the United States of Europe, with a European authority over military and foreign affairs, as well as fiscal and legal matters.

In such a scenario, it might be plausible to expect the 28 (or 27, without the United Kingdom) countries building a more constructive and efficient system of asylum procedure. In this sense, being immigration not merely a national problem but rather a supranational issue, single European governments are no longer abandoned to their destiny, as they might have felt like in the past, but they are rather encouraged and helped throughout the all refugees’ asylum procedure. The Dublin III agreement, which until then regulated that the country of arrival was alone responsible for the examination of the asylum application (European Commission, 2018), is no longer in place and has rather been replaced by a more cooperative system of checks and balances at the EU level.

At this point, it is irrelevant to understand what kind of procedure this scenario and new EU political entity entail. What it is central to understand for the analysis, is that result of the elections brought about a new reformist agenda in the Union, pushing for a modernization of the political block and the upgrade of the political essence of the EU. In this scenario, the asylum regulation is a supranational problem, common to every Member States of the community. In such a background, the political power of the Union would inevitably be strengthened. As the Union would arguably be readier to absorb and locate Syrian refugees within the Union, the hazard of the treaty would be rather low. For the counterpart, threatening to release a new migration surge would then be seen as harmful, as it would not serve the scope, but rather mean the loss of all political leverage.

Scenario two: A status quo scenario

The second scenario implies an almost-equal situation than the past. In this set-up, the elections have seen minor changes within the political composition of the European Parliament’s seats, with few, if any, alterations in the EU political dynamics. This scenario leads to a status-quo environment in which little will change. The political entity of the Union will continue to fight between conservatism and progressivism but will inevitably crush against the difficulties of reality. The EU is being torn by two very different visions of the Union: one supporting a stronger role of the EU vis-à-vis the international community and the member states and the other more concerned about a disproportionate transfer of sovereignty from the MS to the EU. It cannot be absurd to think that this is the most likely scenario. Even under the premises of a political reshuffle in Europe, Almost everyone agrees with the assumption that it is hard to imagine a revolutionized Union coming out of the elections.

This situation continues to give the major contracting power in the hand of external forces. The European Union is divided and fragile, as gateway countries like Italy, Greece, the Balkans, Malta, and Spain would continue to fear the collapse of the treaty and the incoming of new waves of refugees. This gives all the political leverage to others. In this scenario, the hazard of the treaty is high, as high is the threat it can pose to the political and social fabric of the Union. This would happen in a twofold way. Of course, the risk of an uncontrolled migration surge could threaten the hardly stable EU environment reached after years of financial austerity. More than in a practical way, however, the issue is more political and abstract. People, in fact, through insecurity, may tend to become more conservative and close-minded, an issue which can already be witnessed in some parts of Europe. The threat of new uncertainties may urge European citizens to confide in the comforting words of authoritarianism and nationalism. The continuation of this path may lead the European Union down a spiral of divisiveness and fragility, from which it may never be able to pull out.

Third scenario: A puzzled scenario

The last scenario sees the victory of all those far-right, far-left, populist and Eurosceptic forces, which have started gaining political momentum over the last few years. The political significance of a European Union dominated by sovranists would potentially mean the end of the supranational dream of the unionists, followed by a return to the traditional notion of state sovereignty. This would mean a worsening of the decisional power of the European Union, whose existence would be put rather quickly into question.

Foreseeing an immediate consequent collapse of the Union after the elections would be unrealistic, yet this scenario would mean a set back from the European integration process and a return to a traditional notion of international politics, more likely based on bilateral agreements rather than multilateral deals as the 2016 EU-Turkey refugees pact. The return to a conventional way of dealing with migrants would mean a potential loss of negotiating power from the side of the Union, as it happened (although to a smaller degree) in the second scenario. It might be difficult to see nationalist, xenophobic parties allowing the entrance of more refugees into national borders. This would damage their propaganda message of national purity and social exclusivity. It is for this reason that we might expect either the worsening of diplomatic ties between Turkey and single EU Member States, which would then be concerned about their own national borders, or more incentives given to third countries (like Ankara) to keep migrants away. Either ways, those who will pay the highest price are Middle Eastern refugees, who will continue to be exchanged or used as bargaining chips by governments out of political necessities.


Everything needs to change, so that everything can stay the same. This is a famous quote of The Leopard, a novel written by Italian writer Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa. Cryptical, yet explanatory, this sentence may well resume what discussed throughout this paper. When in 2016, at the peak of the refugee crisis, Brussels and Ankara signed this treaty, it was clear that the background reason for such a questionable agreement must have been found at the political level. On the one hand, the European Union needed a way out. The first priority became to stop the flow of illegal migrants coming through Greece, to try and reverse the new wave of political populism and xenophobia raising in Europe. On the other, Turkey needed a way in. Ankara was looking for the perfect opportunity to get the so long-desired visa-free environment for his citizens flying to the Union. Plus, the Turkish government secured the upgrading of the Customs Union with Brussels.

The 2019 European Parliament electoral vote has been acknowledged a new game-changer in global affairs. Not because the European Parliament covers that much of a power, but rather because it could, or could not, officialize the grip of populist sentiment that today strangles Europe. It might therefore be not too much of an exaggeration to say that the next European Parliamentary elections may have impactful repercussions not merely on future legislations, but also on past agreements and external strategies as, for instance, the 2016 EU-Turkey refugees’ agreement, often strongly criticized by the far-right. This report has provided the reader with three different scenarios. Yet, the most plausible one appears once again to be the second. It is in here that comes into play the quote from The Leopard.

Despite the fact that much has been said about and criticized of this agreement, it continues to be the most suitable for the counterparts’ interests. Europe cannot allow once again a “Lampedusa” situation, where thousands and thousands of refugees arrive ashore, showing the inability of the Union to cope with humanitarian disasters. At the same time, Turkey needs political leverage to find its position in the Mediterranean as a key player. From a political and geopolitical standpoint, it is most probable to say that to date the issue of illegal immigration will continue to be a matter of intergovernmental debate, rather than supranational concern. Although throughout the EU we may feel discussions and promises of a new Europe, it is my strong belief that little, if nothing, will change in the short-medium run. This has, and will continue to have, a detrimental impact on the European stance in the world. We will continue to maintain a peripheral influence in world affairs, while our values of democracy, freedom and justice will remain an undistinguished light in the dark. The inability to step up to our international commitments, unfortunately, will once again condemn Middle Eastern refugees to poor living conditions and to international indifference.

Francesco Pisanò

Double Master’s Degree in International Security, Intelligence and Strategic Studies

University of Glasgow – Charles University of Prague


European Commission (2018), Country responsible for asylum application (Dublin), European Commission Migration and Home Affairs, retrieved on the 9th of December 2018 at the following link

Kingsley. P (2016), EU-Turkey refugee deal – Q&A, The Guardian, retrieved on the 3rd of December 2018 at the following link

Ministry of Foreign Affairs Republic of Turkey (2016), Implementation of Turkey-EU agreement of 18 March 2016, Ministry of Foreign Affairs Republic of Turkey, retrieved on the 3rd of December 2018 at the following link

Shaheen. K et al (2016), Turkey threatens to end refugee deal in row over EU accession, The Guardian, retrieved on the 9th of December 2018 at the following link