European Commission First Vice-President Frans Timmermans spoke to The Wall Street Journal about his expectations for an agreement with Turkey aimed at helping to stem the flows of migrants into the European Union from Syria and elsewhere.
Mr. Timmermans, who led the European Union negotiations with Turkey, said direct relocation of refugees from Turkey will play an important role in a future European strategy but he added he was confident that Ankara will stick to its part of the deal in stemming the influx into Europe, but says that many more measures are needed for fewer people to arrive on the continent. Here is an edited transcript.
WSJ: How feasible is the Turkey deal on migration?
Frans Timmermans: I think so far, in my experience in the last 20-odd years, it’s difficult to get a deal with the Turks, they’re very tough negotiators, but once you have a deal, they stick to it. I have no reason whatsoever to doubt they will stick to the deal. I went to Turkey three times in the last weeks and every time I was impressed by the fact that there was a clear willingness on the side of the Prime Minister and the government to act on this. We’ll monitor it, that’s what member states want and they’re absolutely right, so we’ll see what happens in the next days, weeks and months. But I am confident that both sides will do what we have agreed in the action plan.
WSJ: You mentioned the Prime Minister and you negotiated with him, but what about the President, who in the end did not come to the summit even though he insisted on having one? How do you see the role of Mr. Erdogan in this? We had fairly early on an indication that the President himself clearly wanted the Prime Minister to attend the summit. They were never unclear to me about this in the three visits I had. It is not for us to decide who attends, the invitation is for Turkey. He has the power under the Constitution to do what needs to be done under the agreement we’ve reached. That’s why I disagree with those who say this was just a photo-op. It was not. This is clearly an agreement between Turkey and the European Union and the government is responsible for implementing those measures, therefore the Prime Minister is the person you want to have at the summit.
WSJ: You don’t think the lack of attendance by the president gives him the opportunity to distance himself from this agreement?
FT: Absolutely not. This is not the impression I had when I spoke to the president myself, on the first visit. They never gave me the impression there is a disagreement between them or that this is a game for them. This is very serious for them, as much as it is for us.
WSJ: There are some things that still need to be resolved, the EU needs to deliver on its part of the bargain and one of the questions relates to the funding. What indications do you have that the funds will be made available?
FT: I think the funds will be available. We made clear what we can take from the Commission side over the next two years and member states made clear that they agree with the €3 billion. So the rest is execution of those decisions.
WSJ: At the December summit?
FT: We’ll need to take care of that. There is a commitment and we need to make sure that the funds will be available for the projects selected.
WSJ: What about this idea to have resettlement directly from Turkey that emerged from the German-led mini-summit on Sunday? Are you going to put forward a proposal by the end of the year?
FT: First of all, the group that came together yesterday, those are the countries most affected by this issue. So there is some logic in these countries getting together and looking at ways on how to best cooperate. I was there at the meeting and the whole spectrum of issues was discussed, not just resettlement. The commission had said from the outset, I had said that whatever we decide in the broader issue with Syrian refugees, resettlement will have to be a bigger part of the solution than it is now. It is part of the action plan, part of what the commission had always said and it is clearly part of what the international community would need to do in the future, with a very strong and important role of the [United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees] this. The commission will look into the possibilities on that front in the next couple of weeks. Whether we will come with a concrete proposal will depend on the analysis we will have to make right now, but that resettlement per se will have to be an important factor is absolutely clear to me. You take a lot of human misery out of the equation if you have resettlement. You take the criminal networks out the equation, all the risks people take to come to Europe, and you introduce a fair burden-sharing by the international community. This is not just about the EU, we should be talking to the Americans about this, we should be talking to the Canadians and the Australians and all the others who could be potentially be part of a bigger resettlement scheme, based on the UNHCR.
WSJ: Back in the summer, resettlement was more palatable to member states than relocation. Do you think now, after Paris, there is any appetite at all in these countries to take any more people?
FT: Clearly you have to be very careful in linking the two subjects, but if you are afraid that uncontrollable streams of refugees could harbor people who would want to do harm to European society, resettlement is also an answer to that, because then you could go out there and select the people you want to bring to Europe. So that increases also your security.
WSJ: In terms of that security, what do you consider is still needed, a revamp of Schengen and Dublin, securing the borders of Greece?
FT: I think by and large, Europe needs to do a better job at protecting its external borders, that’s where it all starts. That’s what we need to do collectively. There is broad understanding among member states that doing this better means working closer together. We will put forward a proposal on a European coastguard, but it affects all our external borders. The mantra of reinstating internal borders is an emergency measure that might be a measure that is necessary in the short run, but it is not something that will be a long-term solution.
WSJ: Has Greece moved in asking more help in securing the border.
FT: In general, yes, not just in border control, but also in hotspots, setting up places in the islands. In the last couple of weeks, we’ve seen a clear improvement of our cooperation with Greece. Things are actually moving in the right direction. Also cooperation on border protection. The bilateral meeting in Istanbul last week between Greece and Turkey had a positive effect, at least that’s what Prime Minister Tsipras told me yesterday. So I think we’re moving in the right direction
WSJ: What does securing the border actually mean?
FT: For instance, checking passports and sharing the information you get with the passports. People re-entering in the EU with EU passports. That information is not always checked and that sort of thing we need to do better in the future. When we talk about refugees, the only thing that would work would be putting an end to the violent conflict in Syria. People are fleeing from barrel bombs and air raids and building fences is not going to change that fundamentally. So you need to make sure you get all parties around the table to find a peaceful solution in Syria. And you need to make sure that people are not pushed further away from their home country than necessary. That’s why we want to cooperate with countries like Jordan and Lebanon and creating better facilities for people in the camp, making sure that people can take up jobs and work, send their kids to school and have access to medical care. Those are the priority things we need to be doing.
WSJ: Does it concern you that a significant minority comes from other places, like Afghanistan?
FT: This is all linked. Because of the Syrian refugees, a path is built and then others, who want to come to Europe for other reasons, see the possibility of using that ‘highway to Europe’. A policy will also have to have all these elements – stopping violence in Syria, having agreements with third countries about people who come here who don’t have the right to international protection and therefore should be returned, that’s why talking to Pakistan is so important, making sure that Turkey aligns its visa policy to ours, so that people from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh can be stopped at the external Turkish border rather than coming to Turkey first and having to be stopped at the European border. All these things need to be put into place. The complexity lies in the fact that we need to do so many things at the same time. The individual measures aren’t that complicated, but putting all into place with urgency is what is causing difficulties.
WSJ: Are you concerned that the Russian way of fighting the war in Syria, which is different from the Western way in terms of trying to avoid civilian casualties, might make things worse before, hopefully, they get better?
FT: Clearly I share all the concerns people have about that. Given my background and my feelings I have about that we could discuss this for hours. But it is equally important to understand that if you want a solution, you will need the Russians and the Iranians to be part of that solution. We have a vested interest in getting everyone at the negotiating table as soon as possible.
WSJ: The fact that two of the Paris attackers used this ‘highway to Europe’, were registered in Leros and then ended up at Stade de France, does this concern you?
FT: Let’s not confuse things: People who are fleeing from Syria are fleeing from people like them. These two groups should never be mixed up… The problem originated in our societies, people who were born here, who were part of our societies, who for some reason turn against us in a most murderous way, dehumanize their fellow citizens to the extent that they feel justified to kill them.That is the core of the problem we’re facing.That problem deserves at least as much attention as the issue of how they traveled once they went to Syria and how they traveled back to Europe. Given the fact that Daesh knows so well what buttons to push in our public opinion, I wouldn’t put it beyond them to use this as an opportunity to discredit migrants and to create more tension and strife in European societies. That is what they want, let’s not give it to them.
WSJ: What is the Commission’s position on filtering migrants by nationality on the Balkan route, as Macedonia, Serbia and Croatia are doing?
FT: The whole idea behind hotspots is exactly that, that you would be able very quickly to identify those people arriving and be able to very quickly make a distinction between those who have the right to international protection and those who don’t, who should be returned to where they come from. Making a distinction between those who need international protection and those who don’t is justified. The only thing is, you don’t do this based on the nationality, you do this on the basis of individual cases.
WSJ: But people are being filtered by nationality right now.
FT: There are people from Iran, from Morocco, from African countries and the likelihood that they will get international protection on an individual basis is very low indeed. But that should be assessed on an individual basis, not on the basis of their passports.
WSJ: So what should happen to these people who get stuck at the border?
FT: Once ascertained that these people have no right to international protection, they should be assisted to return to their country of origin. Discussions should be carried out with the countries of origin and that the European countries should be prepared in assisting people to return. That should be our priority. It is clear, that if you look at the percentages there is an increasing number of people who come from countries where it is unlikely that they will have the right to international protection. A country is also under no obligation to grant people access to their territory if they do not make a request for asylum.
WSJ: Macedonia is erecting Hungary-style fences on its border, is that something that concerns you?
FT: We’re trying to prevent countries looking for individual solutions to collective problems. That’s why we have increased the exchange of information, and that is one thing that is working better today. But clearly, going down this road is not a sustainable solution in the long run. We need to stem the flow at its origin, make sure that people have better opportunities to stay near Syria.
WSJ: On return of people denied asylum, what will change now to make sure that countries are taking them back? So far, the numbers have been very small.
FT: Yes, these are very small numbers for now. But we have some successes, the U.K. was successful in sending back people to Pakistan. [Migration] Commissioner [Dimitris] Avramopoulos was in Pakistan only a week ago and we hope to see soon more returns to Pakistan, but we are still working on that. In some African countries, we’ve seen some EU-funded projects for the reintegration of people returned, in Niger, we can build on that
WSJ: What’s the status of British negotiations?
FT: Mr. Cameron has stated his position quite clearly in his letter, I’ve seen [Sunday] that he talked to many of his colleagues about this. We will see how we’ll take this further in the next couple of weeks. We’re looking into it, it’s not just us, also member states and the president of the European Council.
WSJ: Is it slipping rather to the summit early next year?
FT: I frankly don’t know. Member states truly engage with David Cameron and we also try to be as helpful as we can, because there is a lot at stake. Whatever we can do to help Britain feel more comfortable in the European Union, we will do. It really is in the strategic interest of Britain to be in the EU and I hope we will be able to convince as many people as possible of that fact.
WSJ: Has anything come up in the discussions suggesting what the major issues will be?
FT: One thing is very clear: Prime Minister Cameron sticks faithfully to the points he raised in his letter. As a negotiator, that is completely understandable. He states clearly to all his partners these are very important points for the U.K. and I fully understand that