The Merkel Plan – A proposal for the Syrian refugee crisis

4 October 2015
The Merkel Plan

Dear friends of ESI,

Tomorrow, Monday 5 October, Turkish president Erdogan will come to Brussels to discuss the current refugee crisis with the heads of European institutions. On the eve of this visit ESI has published a new policy proposal:

A proposal for the Syrian refugee crisis

This follows two recent ESI newsletters on the refugee issue:

  • Saving lives in the Aegean  (18 September 2015), where we argue that the way forward lies in an agreement between EU member states, led by Germany, and Turkey to share the burden of hosting Syrian refugees through relocation of hundreds of thousands from Turkey to the EU.
  • Refugees as a means to an end – The EU's most dangerous man (24 September 2015), where we warn of how a resurgent and anti-Muslim European right is using the refugee crisis for political advantage.

In recent weeks, the realisation has grown in many European capitals that, without Turkish support, no solution to the refugee crisis is possible. However, the proposals currently debated in European policy circles – from building fences around Europe to solving the Syrian crisis at source – are vague and hopelessly impractical.

The new ESI proposal rests on the proposition that there are two indispensable players in any solution to this crisis: Germany and Turkey.

In the current political climate, there is little that European Union institutions can bring to the table. For this reason, it is Germany that must take the lead. We also explain why an agreement between Berlin and Ankara is in the security interest of Turkey.


The EU's helplessness

On 29 September, the Bavarian government noted that 169,400 asylum seekers had arrived that month. At this rate, the coming year will see more than 1.8 million refugees arriving in Germany – even without the effects of Russian military intervention in Syria. As a UNHCR regional coordinator noted about the flow, "I don't see it abating, I don't see it stopping… perhaps this is the tip of the iceberg."

Meanwhile, on talk-shows around Europe experts repeat the same formulaic proposals: address the "root causes" of the crisis, "solve the situation in Syria, Libya and the Middle East", host another international conference, work for a "European solution."

A recent interview in The Washington Post with Federica Mogherini, the EU's High Representative for foreign and security policy, highlights the same sense of helplessness. While the title of the article promises much – "E.U.: Foreign policy chief: Here's what to do about the refugee crisis" – the reader looks in vain for a concrete proposal. The helplessness of European elites is captured in Mogherini's plaintive statement that "it was painful to see fences or walls built in Europe." She asserts that "the issue is manageable for us Europeans" and expresses her hope that "international partners could take more refugees for resettlement." But she concludes that only a "political solution to the conflict in Syria" will help.


What will not end the crisis

Provide more funding to help refugees in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan

This is a good idea for humanitarian reasons. However, conditions in refugee camps are not the main factor in the calculations being made by the refugees.

According to UNHCR, Turkey has some of the best equipped refugee camps in the world. In February 2014, The New York Times wrote about Turkey under the title "How to Build a Perfect Refugee Camp". With electricity, schools and low crime rates, they are a far cry from the much harsher conditions of Syrian refugees in Lebanon or Jordan, or indeed those in Hungary or Greece. And yet, the article concludes, what is missing even in Turkey's camps is hope.

"Besides the comforts, and the cleanliness, and the impressive facilities of the Kilis camp, there is one important thing to note: Nobody likes living there. 'It's hard for us,' said Basheer Alito, the section leader who was so effusive in his praise for the camp and the Turks. 'Inside, we're unhappy. In my heart, it's temporary, not permanent.' 'What if it was permanent?' I asked him. Quickly, he answered, 'It's impossible to accept this.'"

At present, the only viable option many refugees see is getting to Germany. The prospect of slightly better living conditions in or outside of refugee camps will not change this calculus.

A single EU Asylum Agency to assess claims and grant protection

This is a good idea, as the current system of different national asylum systems has been revealed as dysfunctional. However, its task would be to deal with the refugees already in the EU; it would have no greater capacity to limit the number of arrivals than the current national asylum agencies.

A common list of safe countries of origin

The European Commission is now proposing a common EU list of seven safe countries of origin: Albania, Bosnia, Macedonia, Kosovo, Montenegro, Serbia and Turkey. At present, 17 percent of asylum applications in the EU come from these countries. This useful proposal would facilitate the processing of claims from citizens of the Western Balkans, freeing up administrative resources. It would do nothing, however, to reduce the number of arrivals over the Aegean. It would change nothing for Syrian refugees.

Improving EU burden sharing

Agreement on a system for distributing refugees fairly across the continent is proving very difficult to achieve, at the political level. But again, it deals only with the downstream management of refugees; it would make no difference to the current inflow. The same can be said for better managed and equipped reception centres in Greece.

Taking on the people smugglers

The demand for an avenue into Europe is so great that inevitably there will be unscrupulous characters to provide the supply. And Syrian refugees do not need to take advantage of sophisticated smuggling operations to reach Greece on flimsy boats. They are already in Turkey, and the boats needed to take them to Greece are comparatively cheap.

Build higher fences

There are many variations on this idea – from strengthening Frontex, the EU border agency, to restoring border controls within the EU's Schengen area – but all of them fall short. Fences can't be built on water. The suggestion that Greece could somehow stop migrants from reaching the EU if only it tried a bit harder is an empty one. The Greek government cannot sink ships or push them away from its shores. This would be both illegal and dangerous.

Turkey stopping refugees

Turkey is by no means inactive in the face of the exodus of refugees from its territory. So far in 2015, the Turkish coast guard has arrested 59 people smugglers and rescued over 45,000 refugees, taking them back to Turkey. Yet these efforts resemble Sisyphus rolling a rock up a hill. The problem for the Turkish coast guard is less to detect boats than to stop them safely. And for refugees who are intercepted, there is nothing that stops them from trying again:

"Once migrants are at sea, stopping them is difficult and risky. Refugee boats set to sail in columns, simultaneously from many points. At the same time it is possible to see 30-40 boats afloat at once. They move fast, they take risks, they do not stop when they are warned… Once a coast guard boat stops a migrant dinghy, it takes at least an hour to get refugees on board and return them to the port. After that the refugees are registered, delivered to the local authorities and dispatched to a refugee camp. While all this is happening, other boat loads reach Greece."


Outlines of a solution: the Merkel Plan

With European institutions offering piecemeal measures that do not add up to a coherent plan, German Chancellor Angela Merkel is the only leader in a position to take meaningful action.

Merkel has won the respect of many for her compassionate leadership when this crisis erupted in late August. Now, compassion needs to be accompanied by a reassertion of control over Europe's borders. There are more than 1.9 million Syrian refugees registered in Turkey. The central idea of this plan is that it is in both the EU's and Turkey's interest to share this burden.

A German quota for Syrians in Turkey: Germany should agree to grant asylum over the next 12 months to 500,000 Syrian refugees from among those currently registered in Turkey. Germany should also call on other EU member states to join the scheme.

Asylum claims: Syrian refugees should be able to submit their asylum claims to Germany and other participating states from within Turkey. Those who are accepted will be given safe and orderly transport to their new host communities. The offer should be limited to Syrians currently registered in Turkey. In this way, it avoids creating incentives for more migrants to travel to Turkey.

Helping the most vulnerable: Such a scheme would allow priority to be given to the most vulnerable groups among Syrian refugees, who are not in a position to undertake the arduous crossing of the Aegean and the journey across the Western Balkans.

Logistics of applications in Turkey: The logistical challenges are less substantial than one might expect. Since November 2014, German authorities no longer conduct individual interviews with Syrian asylum seekers in Germany, unless there are doubts about their identity or specific reasons to doubt their claim. This approach can equally be applied in Turkey.

The Aegean migration route: As a quid pro quo for Germany's offer, Turkey would commit to taking back, in a quick and simple procedure, all new migrants that reach Greece from a given date. This means that, within days of their arrival in Greece, they would be sent back by the Greek authorities to Turkey. Within weeks, the number of refugees crossing the Aegean will slow to a trickle, as it becomes pointless to undertake the risky journey.

Legal issues: Greece has to treat Turkey as "a safe third country" under the relevant provisions of its Asylum Procedures Law. This will allow it to declare asylum claims inadmissible and return all the migrants that reach its territory via Turkey. This is both lawful and plausible. Syrians in Turkey already enjoy temporary protection, while non-Syrians can apply for international protection under a new EU-inspired asylum law.

Support to Turkey: Germany, other participating EU countries and the European Commission would provide Turkey with financial assistance to manage the readmission of migrants from Greece. They would also increase their assistance to the Syrian refugees whom Turkey already hosts, along the lines of existing proposals.

Visa-free travel for Turkey: The European Commission would commit to assessing early next year whether Turkey qualifies for visa-free travel with the EU. If so, it would present a legislative proposal to that effect no later than June 2016. Germany should indicate its political support for this.

If adopted in the next few weeks, the Merkel Plan would have a dramatic effect on the refugee crisis.

Smugglers will lose their clients. Scenes of desperate refugees amassing on the island of Lesbos or wandering across the Western Balkans will soon pass into history.

The EU would have restored control over its Aegean border. This would allow leaders in Central European nations who have argued against burden-sharing arrangements "as long as the borders are not controlled" to revise their position.

Germany and the other participating EU countries would have time to organise accommodation and support services for successful applicants, before transporting them to their final destinations. The process will become orderly and organised.

Cooperation on a practical mission like this in the Aegean should help build confidence and revive talks between Athens and Ankara on other bilateral issues in the Aegean.

The fact that Germany is exercising leadership on this issue will allow it to call on other rich nations to contribute in turn and alleviate the humanitarian effects of the Syrian war. The US, Canada, Australia and other countries should undertake a similar initiative for Lebanon.


Why a Merkel Plan is in Turkey's interest

Russian Russian forces in Syria 2015

Turkey's neighbourhood: Russian forces in Ukraine 2013 – Russian forces in Syria 2015

Hungary's Viktor Orban recently compared the current refugee crisis with previous Ottoman invasions. As he explained in a speech on 5 September:

"there is something which fundamentalists might call a crusade, but which moderates like me would rather describe as a challenge posed by the problem of 'the Islamization of Europe'. Someone somewhere must reveal this for what it is, must halt it, and must replace it with another, counteractive policy."

Orban wants to define Europe as a bastion of conservative Christian values, set in opposition to Islam. At the same time, he urges the EU to be on more friendly terms with Putin's Russia. In fact, a political storm is gathering strength in a number of EU member states. Populists around Europe are energized by the lack of credible strategies from mainstream parties. This raises the prospect of a vicious circle: a sense of helplessness among mainstream parties leading to rising confidence among those who oppose the very idea of asylum. It will also paralyse effective policy making.

At the same time, a resurgent Russia has been revising borders, annexing territories and supporting separatists in the northern Black Sea. It has moved its military into annexed territories in the Southern Caucasus. Now, it has launched a major military intervention on Turkey's southern border, attacking groups that the US and Turkey have long supported. Turkey finds itself surrounded by hostile states and armed groups, in a more precarious strategic position than at any time since the end of the Cold War.

In this geopolitical context, a European Union in which a growing number of national governments embrace an anti-Muslim, pro-Putin stance is a significant security threat for Turkey. The rise of the far right in European politics should be a cause for real concern, and the refugee crisis adds more fuel to the fire with every passing week.

For Turkey to cooperate successfully on such a vital issue with the most influential country in the EU, Germany, would create a powerful counter-narrative. So would improved relations with Greece through cooperation in the Aegean.

In addition, an agreement that includes German support for visa liberalisation would offer a major practical benefit for Turkish citizens. The agreement would relieve Turkey of a significant share of its Syrian refugee burden. It would be a public recognition that, so far, it is Turkey that has carried the lion's share of this challenge.

Many best wishes,

Gerald Knaus

PS: For more details concerning this proposal please visit our special webpage You also find more on the ESI Facebook page.