Balkanalysis.com editor’s note: confusion and panic following the Brexit vote, and preparations for the imminent Warsaw NATO Summit have distracted the focus of European leaders northwards to Britain and eastwards towards Russia. Relatively little attention is being paid to a scenario this website has consistently warned of– a renewed migrant surge towards the now-closed Balkan Route. The author, a former US diplomat, discusses the issue in the context of Europe’s current moment of crisis.
By Gerard M. Gallucci*
Significant attention is now focused on what happens after the Brexit vote. It seems everyone in the remaining EU countries are fed up with perfidious Albion, and just want them to leave and get it over with. Everyone, that is, except Merkel; she seems willing to give the English time to reconsider. She understands the particular costs to Germany if it must finally step out of its history to lead the EU alone. (No one else can lead as they are either caught up in their own populist uprising or unable – France – to think with one head).
Yet Brexit and its repercussions – political, economic, financial, etc – may actually not be what breaks Europe. What breaks Europe and the EU may be the coming wave of refugees that will hit the Balkans first.
Brussels policy for dealing with the refugee flow that threatened to overtake its members’ willingness to tolerate open borders has been mostly about getting Turkey to stop them before reaching EU borders.
Currently, some 2.7 million Syrians, Iraqis and others are piled up in Turkey either in camps – a small minority – or at the bottommost rungs of Turkish society and economy. A second element of the EU’s approach has been to allow thousands to die while trying to cross the sea, or pile up in Greece (officially 57,000) and Italy (where 4500 were rescued from the waters in just one day in June) if they succeed. The third piece has been to bottle up in the Balkans the rest that manage to get through.
Focus on Turkey
The key piece is Turkey. The deal the EU struck with Erdoğan requires Turkey to stop those fleeing the Mideast chaos from crossing over into Europe. Turkey has done so, allowing only a comparative trickle to move beyond. But the deal seems to be seen differently on both sides. Erdoğan appears to believe that in turn for stopping the refugee flow, Turks will get visa-free travel and Turkey will be allowed to move forward into the EU.
The EU – meaning Brussels and Berlin – apparently believe that they are already paying for Turkey allowing the refugees to pile up in its territory – and for belated efforts to close its southern border – with the “aid” it is providing to handle those refugees. For the other EU advantages – including visa-free travel – Turkey must meet “benchmarks” (including “anti-terrorism” measures) that it has failed so far to do.
As far as the Germans are concerned, Turkey must meet EU conditions if it can get anywhere near EU membership. In effect, Turkey must “act European” – including on human rights and democracy – before qualifying to enter Europe. That is not part of Erdoğan’s plans for rebuilding his caliphate.
Turkey is just pocketing most of the EU’s “aid” while Erdoğan accuses the bloc of double standards and “Islamophobia.” Both the EU and Turkey agree that there is no final deal and neither side appears to be getting close to one. Erdoğan probably understands that EU membership is far off the table but has political reasons to insist on visa-free travel.
Given the populist/nationalist backlash across the EU – only most noticeable in Hungary, which is allowing a bare trickle through to travel onward to Austria and Germany – and now the Brexit vote, there is no reason to assume Turks will be allowed free travel into the EU any time soon. The current impasse – which so far has prevented a renewed refugee flow – is not stable.
At some point in the next few months, Erdoğan may simply decide to let those millions move on. He may do it all at once and out loud, or slowly and quietly to build pressure on Berlin to surrender to his terms. He has the leverage because the EU has no plan B to handle another crisis.
Implications of a Second Migrant Wave
If the flow across the Aegean begins anew, it will be Greece and the Balkans that get overwhelmed again. Greece is in the EU but has been left to slowly twist on its own petard since its financial crisis. It will have no choice but to allow them to move on, but the strain will still be immense.
Macedonia and Serbia will then face the same problems as last year but with the northern routes into the EU now closed. They, meanwhile, have been left outside the EU staring in.
Merkel is perhaps the most effective and farsighted leader in the entire West. But even she will be challenged to build any effective EU response while her remaining partners face even more backlash from their own various domestic Orbans. Whatever happens with Brexit – perhaps Merkel and certain British leaders will find a way to walk back from the edge – renewed crisis over refugees will break the EU, leave chaos across the Balkans and leave hundreds of thousands of desperate people with nowhere to call home.
The only long-term solution remains, as it has for some time, strenuous EU and US efforts to bring real stability to Syria and Iraq. This cannot be done at arm’s length.
Gerard M. Gallucci is a retired US diplomat and UN peacekeeper. He worked as part of US efforts to resolve the conflicts in Angola, South Africa and Sudan and as Director for Inter-American Affairs at the National Security Council. He served as UN Regional Representative in Mitrovica, Kosovo from July 2005 until October 2008 and as Chief of Staff for the UN mission in East Timor from November 2008 until June 2010. He has a PhD in political science, taught at the University of Pittsburgh, University of Arkansas, George Washington University and Drake University and now works as an independent consultant.