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E.U. Deal With Turkey Legitimizes Far Right in Europe: Christopoulos

A year on from the controversial agreement aimed to halt refugee flows across the Aegean, leading human rights defender Dimitris Christopoulos talks to Refugees Deeply about its impact in Europe and beyond.

Written by Daniel Howden Published on Read time Approx. 7 minutes
A Syrian woman takes shelter with her children in an iron box during a rainfall after they arrived from Turkey to the deserted Greek island of Pasas near Chios, on Jan. 20, 2016.AP/Petros Giannakouris, File

One year on from its signing, the agreement between the European Union and Turkey has had far-reaching implications. The deal under which Ankara agreed to crack down on refugee and migrant flows in return for political concessions and European aid money is being used as a basis for E.U. external relations.

Several of the mechanisms foreseen in the E.U.-Turkey statement – including the resettlement of refugees from Turkey and the fast-track deportation of new arrivals to Greece – have partly or wholly failed to function. However, defense of the agreement remains an integral part of E.U. and national government statements on all refugee and migration issues.

Dimitris Christopoulos has observed the deal both as a Greek political scientist and as the head of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH). As leader of the Paris-based federation of 184 organizations in 112 countries, Christopoulos has been a persistent critic of E.U. policies aimed at deterring migration into the bloc.

Refugees Deeply: Defenders of the E.U.-Turkey statement would call themselves realists and point to its success in reducing flows of refugees and migrants into Greece. What would you say to them?

Dimitris Christopoulos: I’d say that one thing is realism, another thing is cynicism. So, it is partly the case, even though we need to consider that this control had already been achieved when the western Balkan corridor was sealed before the statement. I understand the argument that people are not coming any more, but we should be able to strike the balance in the long term in a more prudent way.The message which is sent by the deal is contaminating everybody. it contaminates us because we accustom ourselves to legitimizing xenophobia. It’s an inhumane message for the refugees and migrants who find themselves living in a buffer zone. It’s extremely problematic for the social cohesion of the buffer zone itself, which is Greece and Turkey. It’s damaging for Turkey because it buys European silence (for its leaders) as Turkey makes its authoritarian shift.

It took us two world wars, I don’t know how many deaths and refugees created, to make the Geneva Conventions, and the arrival of 1 million refugees in the E.U. was enough to give up on the idea. The so-called realists would argue that this is a new situation and we need new tools but the Geneva Conventions were the response to this exact situation.

Refugees Deeply: We’re now seeing the E.U. replicating the deal with other countries. What ramifications do you see?

Christopoulos: I see two major problems. One is the undermining of a major legal achievement of the 20th century on refugee rights. We move to a model where the refugee is no longer regarded as such when he leaves his country. And this means that we abandon the hard core of human rights law.

My second major concern is the fact that the basic idea here is to externalize refugee protection or migration management outside the E.U. or at its periphery; it’s politically unfair and morally shameful. The rich are saying to the poor: No, you cannot enter our territory.

I cannot buy this argument. Not only is it inhumane but it disregards the fact that in the long term the poor will find a way to our places. Realism is a political virtue, yet a policy dealing with humans, by disregarding their minimum dignity, has an obvious problem. Apart from being inhumane it is unrealistic. People are not stones that will stay where you throw them – they will do their best to find ways to escape from misery.

Refugees Deeply: If not this deal, then what is the way ahead, given the political constraints and tensions within the E.U.?

Christopoulos: I want to see an agreement based on the tools that have been put forward on resettlement and relocation. This would be a fair deal. To a certain degree I might be able to agree that we need to share the responsibility with other states but if we’re not able to do that within the E.U. I do not see any moral grounds for doing it with other countries.

I want to see something which will not allow Turkey to blackmail the E.U. in the way it does. Not be in a panic or a moral hazard because of the arrival of 1 million people. I would like to see my country not being used as the the buffer zone of the rest of the E.U. Is this compatible with the statement? No.

The legal basis of the statement is also highly debatable. This is why the European Court of Justice has decided it has no jurisdiction over it. What I see as the core of the problem is the fact that for the last 15 years E.U. countries have established the Dublin System [which determines the member state responsible for an asylum claim]. They seek to externalize refugee management to the periphery of the E.U., so it’s the same idea more or less.

I see this system as a lose-lose. The Greek government have been conducting a very cynical policy – namely, the worse we make refugees’ lives, the better for us, for two reasons. Firstly, they will not come. Secondly, the northerners will not dare to send them back to us. If Greeks are cynical then the others are masters of political cynicism: Despite obvious problems, despite people dead on Lesbos, the E.U. has reactivated the Dublin Regulation.

Refugees Deeply: Does the E.U. need to deter migration in order to defend itself from the far right and nationalist populism?

Christopoulos: Let’s think of a common European asylum system that will impose certain obligations on states. I come from a country that for the last seven years has not had an autonomous fiscal policy. Why not enforce a common European policy regarding refugee management and a common asylum system? I do not see why some countries can abstain from their responsibilities here – I really don’t see why the Germans and other E.U. members see this as a way of limiting the far right.

They are legitimizing the core political positions of the far right here in Europe. I talk to people all over the E.U. who know that this deal is extremely problematic operationally, legally and morally. But they say it is necessary to prevent the radicalization of the people. But this kind of deal today with the Turks, tomorrow with the Libyans and afterward with the Afghans, means radicalization is legitimized because, after all, you sink to using the same premises as the fascists. If I say the condition to avoid fascism is to avoid refugees then I’m sorry, I already became the beast I’m supposed to fight against.

Refugees Deeply: Critics of the E.U.-Turkey statement said it would fall apart. It has proven more stable than some experts predicted. Why?

Christopoulos: I never expected that the statement would collapse. I expected some parts would not work, like the resettlement from Turkey and so on. Cynically it can deliver and work as it does but I see this as a very shortsighted policy. So even if tomorrow we’re able to prevent 2,000 people from coming to the Greek islands in June, the price that we will pay for this in terms of stability is much higher.

Refugees Deeply: Many observers are concerned over the conditions on the Greek islands where new arrivals are being warehoused. What is happening?

Christopoulos: The [Greek] islands of Lesbos, Samos and Chios have been functioning as an internal buffer zone within Greece itself. Cynically enough, Greece treats its islands in the same way the E.U. wants to treat Greece. A lot of money is given in the form of compensation; so on the islands it is not disastrous in the sense that a second economy has boomed with the refugee issue. But this is a dead end.

A second extremely disturbing effect is that local societies are radicalizing against refugees. We see this on Chios. So on the one hand you have a problem of an unfair deal vis-a-vis the islands, but the second is that the threat of far-right radicalization is always there. Greece has good reasons to advocate for reform or abolition of the statement but it has endorsed it as if it is a strategy that has some positive results for Greek society. I know that the hands of the Greek government are tied here, but someone needs to shout that we are going wrong.

Refugees Deeply: How has the politics behind the statement interacted with broader international developments?

Christopoulos: I hear the feeling of surprise in the mainstream and European political elites at the advent of President Trump. Let’s see Trump as a continuity of some European policies and politics that we’ve had, or the result of compromise and complicity in some politics that are exercised now in the E.U. We can’t see him only as a rupture. If you do not want to become a fascist or a right-wing populist you might need to assume the responsibility and the sacrifice this entails – unless you’re not very much bothered and all you care about is not having refugees in your house. Having studied European history for 25 years I know that Europeans have not suffered as a consequence of refugees. They’ve suffered from the internal monster of fascism and Nazism. If there’s something to be afraid of, it’s in the European mirror.

This interview was conducted on March 9, 2017, and has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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