The view from the ground.

Can This Man Save The Europe-Turkey Migrant Deal?

Gerald Knaus came up with the plan that stopped the flood of refugees from Turkey into Europe. Now it’s teetering on the brink of failure -- and he’s launched a one-man effort to save it.


ISTANBUL — It was something of a curious sight in early October last year, when Angela Merkel stepped into the prime-time spotlight on the popular political talk show Anne Will. The reticent German chancellor is not known to be a great fan of television appearances.

ISTANBUL — It was something of a curious sight in early October last year, when Angela Merkel stepped into the prime-time spotlight on the popular political talk show Anne Will. The reticent German chancellor is not known to be a great fan of television appearances.

But she is a political realist, and Merkel had good reason to believe her survival was at stake. Over the previous six weeks, since she made the decision to suspend the Dublin Regulation and allow all Syrian asylum-seekers to stay in Germany, Merkel had watched her seemingly ironclad popularity levels unravel at an alarming rate. Germany was well on its way to receiving more than a million asylum-seekers in one year, and Germans were feeling overwhelmed. Farther afield, Merkel’s European partners were in open mutiny, balking at calls to resettle refugees. From the right, left, and center, the heat was on. Merkel’s mantra of “Wir schaffen das” (“We can do this”) — a tepid version of Barack Obama’s “Yes, we can” — was wearing thin.

For almost half an hour, Merkel fielded a relentless stream of questions from journalist and host Anne Will on how Germany would be able to cope. Under fire, she vowed to tackle the crisis head on. “I have a plan,” she declared, “but it doesn’t just depend on me.” Germany would work hand in hand with Turkey, she said. Ankara would help stop smuggling operations on its end; in exchange, Germany would “invest” in improving conditions for refugees in Turkey and work to resettle Syrians in Europe in an orderly, legal manner.

In a cafe near Moscow’s Red Square, Gerald Knaus was scouring German news sites when he began to pick up on chatter about Merkel’s new plan. Knaus perked up — the strategy the chancellor was detailing was his.

Knaus is the founding chairman of a small Berlin-based think tank called the European Stability Initiative, or ESI, and just three days earlier, he’d emailed out the details of this very plan to various journalists and high-ranking policymakers. It didn’t come entirely as a surprise that the German government had gotten wind of the blueprint: The ESI has long punched above its weight in Europe and has worked on issues of asylum and migration for years. Its policy papers reach movers and shakers from Berlin to Brussels.

Still, for a policy to take just three days to go from Knaus’s outbox to the mouth of the chancellor was a first. He shot off an email to his colleagues as he played back the show online.

“The most important thing in this interview when it comes to policy is that Angela Merkel accepted our plan for how to move to an orderly process,” he wrote, linking to a YouTube clip of the chancellor speaking. “The big issue now is to persuade those she needs to persuade and implement it. This will be very hard.”

Knaus hoped, cautiously, that this would be the turning point in managing Europe’s dilemma. Instead, he says, a series of missteps and errors ensued. Valuable time was wasted, and talks stalled. Now, nearly a year after Merkel’s TV promise, the architect of the EU-Turkey migration deal is warning it’s about to fail. And he’s doing all he can to rescue it.

But a year ago all of that was still to come.

“I think so far this has been going rather well,” Knaus added in his note before signing off.

* * *

On paper, the ESI’s plan appeared straightforward: Turkey was to take back all new irregular migrants who reached Greek territory after March 20. In return, the European Union would provide Ankara financial support to help care for refugees there and open the doors to visa-free travel for Turks; EU member states would then resettle Syrian refugees directly from Turkey, providing legal, safe access to asylum.

In the real world, the plan has unraveled quickly.

Greece was the first snag. Greek officials were supposed to screen and send new arrivals back to Turkey as soon as possible. Brussels demanded that Athens create a series of “hotspot” registration centers to speed up the process. It agreed to provide more than 200 million euros in funding and send personnel — asylum officers, translators, guards — from other member states to help process applications and patrol the coasts.

But more than 50,000 refugees and migrants were already stranded on the mainland and islands — a staggering burden for a country already crippled by economic crisis. It took several months to organize the hotspots, and Greece’s asylum agency still lacks adequate manpower and facilities. By mid-June, around 140 European asylum officers and guards were helping improve the situation, but hundreds more are still required. Asylum-seekers are often left in limbo for months with no income, no ability to work, and little supervision if they decide to migrate elsewhere in Europe.

The EU vowed in September 2015 to resettle up to 160,000 refugees from Greece and Italy, but, according to the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR), only a little more than 3,000 have been relocated so far, largely due to a lack of willingness among member states to open their doors. Slovakia and Hungary have even launched legal challenges to the bloc’s redistribution plans.

Then, after the failed coup attempt in Turkey, Ankara pulled back its officers in Greece who were supposed to oversee deportations, putting a crucial part of the agreement on indefinite hold. By the start of August, only 468 irregular migrants had been returned to Turkey from Greece, and just 849 Syrian refugees had been resettled in the EU under the scheme. Greece’s camps and reception centers remain overcrowded and chaotic.

Meanwhile, deep cracks are showing in the EU’s relationship with Turkey, a linchpin of the deal. Ankara has been a controversial partner from the start. Many have called the country’s human rights record into question, raising serious doubts over whether European officials should treat it as a safe country of return for those fleeing war. July’s failed coup attempt and the subsequent crackdown have only amplified these concerns. Ankara, for its part, is threatening to reopen the floodgates back toward Greece if the EU doesn’t deliver on its promise of visa liberalization, even though Turkey hasn’t met all of the requirements and, in the wake of the coup attempt, seems increasingly unlikely to do so.

The number of migrants and refugees arriving in Greece has dropped off dramatically in comparison to the previous year: Frontex, the EU’s border management agency, reported the number of arrivals was down 90 percent in April, as migrants believed the new agreement was being implemented or would be eventually. German officials are predicting around 300,000 refugees and migrants will arrive in the country in 2016, a far cry from 1.1 million in 2015.

Still, officials registered a spike in new arrivals in August, and even small fluctuations in the number of migrants threaten to derail any progress that has been made in Greece. Meanwhile, policymakers in Europe have only grown more skeptical over time. Greek Migration Minister Ioannis Mouzalas told the German newspaper Bild that Europe needed to come up with a Plan B. German lawmakers have stepped up pressure on Merkel to push back against Ankara’s authoritarian turn, with some calling on Brussels to break off talks over EU accession for Turkey entirely. And a survey conducted by the market research group Emnid for Bild’s Sunday edition, Bild am Sonntag, showed 52 percent of Germans want their government to scrap the deal.

Wiry and boyish at 46, Knaus says he never intended for himself, or the ESI, to become personally involved in arguments over how the migration deal should be implemented, and there’s good reason to believe him. Migration is just one of many issues in the think tank’s purview, and its staff wasn’t sure the organization’s sudden visibility was wise. In part, that’s because should their efforts to fix the deal fail, it could affect the ESI’s reputation on other projects.

But it’s also because any involvement in the debate over migration is emotionally and psychologically taxing. As the think tank has stepped up its campaign to save the deal, public attention on the small institute has grown. It includes gross exaggeration in German media outlets (one regional headline proclaimed Knaus the “man saving Merkel”) to angry emails and tweets from members of the far right, who accuse the ESI of tearing apart Germany’s cultural fabric by importing foreigners or claim it is driven by American interests (the ESI has twice received funding from George Soros’s Open Society Foundations for projects on human rights and Azerbaijan).

“Think tankers forget that the moment you step into the public arena and try to influence real things, there’s so much blowback,” he said. “This is such an emotional debate. Very often, it has very little to do with facts.”

But he and his colleagues felt they had little choice but to roll up their sleeves when they witnessed the EU “dropping the ball” on implementing their strategy. In its missive laying out the plan, the ESI had argued it was crucial to move quickly, before the situation ballooned out of control and before right-wing groups seized on the chaos for their gain. Yet instead of making Germany take the lead in negotiations with Turkey, European leaders handed over responsibility to the notoriously slow-moving and less influential European Commission. It took until March 18 — some five months after Merkel’s TV announcement — for the EU and Turkey to finally ink an agreement.

Knaus was also disappointed by the inflammatory rhetoric surrounding visa liberalization for Turkey. He had envisioned Ankara’s guarantee of safe and humane conditions for all refugees as the central requirement for receiving visa waiver; instead, Europe stuck to its checklist of 72 political and legal benchmarks. Knaus also believes the outcry over Turkey’s commitment to human rights misses the point: The country might not meet the legal definition of a safe country of origin right now, he says, but it can become one with financial support and close monitoring by human rights groups. And it is, after all, Europe’s only real hope in stemming illegal immigration. “The core idea here is that you can’t control a sea border without cooperating with your neighbor on the other side,” he said. “You can’t build fences on water.”

Knaus becomes visibly agitated when discussing the situation in Greece’s refugee camps. He’d expected European officials to deploy ample expertise on the ground to help create a credible, well-functioning asylum system in Greece. But identifying and training personnel has proved to be a bigger hurdle than expected. And EU member states’ resistance to resettling refugees has been troubling, he says: With the exception of Germany and Sweden, most European countries have turned their backs on their international obligations. “The policy at the moment is not humane; it’s not human rights compatible. It’s basically detention,” Knaus said, shifting his gaze to his hands. “It’s like the old man in The Muppet Show who sits in the balcony and watches things as they play out.… They are content with watching as Greece buckles.”

The ESI’s refugee plan was designed to be a sturdy table. But European policymakers had already begun hacking away at each of its legs. As Knaus watched the deal start to wobble, he jumped into action.

* * *

For months, Knaus has been shuttling between the EU and Turkey to listen, persuade, and cajole policymakers and to rally the European public. Everywhere he goes, whether in private or public, he discusses the migration deal with the conviction of an evangelist, roaming from broad strokes to minutiae, punctuated by a slight Viennese accent. But it’s not yet clear whether he’s winning any new converts.

He spent much of August in cafes and offices in Ankara and Istanbul, meeting with trusted lawmakers he describes as “pretty high up, with access to the president,” as well as representatives from the Turkish Foreign Ministry and ambassadors. There, he listened to objections to the agreement and tried to convince them to keep the floodgates closed for now while explaining how Turkey can become a visibly “safe” country of origin for refugees.

In July, Knaus canvassed various Greek refugee camps on the mainland and on Lesbos, in an effort to try to diagnose the ills of the country’s asylum system. He interviewed Greek journalists, refugees, Greek government officials, and representatives from the asylum service. He connected with two refugees, a Syrian and an Afghan, in Athens, and he still calls them to check in on their asylum status. He has sent ESI colleagues back to conduct more interviews with asylum-seekers, a real-time way to assess what is working and what isn’t.

Since the start of the year, he has gone on the offensive on German and Austrian television, radio, and newspapers, sometimes fielding several interviews a day, hoping to convince viewers and listeners that the deal is worth preserving. He weaves in familiar key phrases (“You can’t build fences on water”) and warnings (“There is no viable alternative”) among his talking points, aiming to whittle down a complex plan to a few accessible arguments.

On a recent sun-drenched Wednesday along Istanbul’s seaside promenade, Knaus took calls and emails from his perch in an air-conditioned Italian cafe. He dialed colleagues to request a series of documents for his next meeting, a closed-door session with major human rights organizations, which he’s trying to convince to fully support the deal. By working with asylum officials on the ground in Greece and Turkey, they can help monitor the situation and ensure that all migrants and refugees are receiving fair and humane treatment, he says.

And yet Knaus is the first to admit that he’s not sure the ESI’s efforts will be enough to save a deal that is being torn apart by large-scale forces even the likes of Merkel may not be able to contain.

That is why he has lobbied the EU for months to appoint a high-level envoy of sorts, a powerful diplomat who will serve as an enforcer to ensure the various moving parts are being implemented. This proposal has yet to find any traction.

“Politics in Europe involves so many people to persuade. There’s always such a wide gap between what’s on paper and what’s in a speech,” he said. “When [European Commission President Jean-Claude] Juncker makes a speech and urges for something to happen, I feel like he’s as powerless as the think tankers outside.”

Andreas Nick, a member of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, has been fighting for Knaus’s agreement to succeed from within the Bundestag, Germany’s parliament, as part of its Foreign Affairs Committee. He praised Knaus as an “exceptional think tanker” able to develop practical, fact-based solutions. But he has watched firsthand as policymakers in Brussels and Ankara have ratcheted up their negative rhetoric in order to play politics. And he’s not sure Knaus’s message will carry above the fray.

“[Knaus] makes his case for implementation passionately and tirelessly,” Nick said. “But [those arguments] alone might not be sufficient to ensure the willingness of European decision-makers to base their actions on rational assessments rather than pandering to domestic audiences for short-term gains and to stir up populist sentiments.”

And so, Knaus has turned to the method that has worked for him previously: He’s using the past few months of travel, research, and advocacy as fodder for his next position paper.

He has spent the latter part of August working feverishly to finish and distribute the paper ahead of an EU ministers’ meeting in September. It urges all sides to move forward, explaining how Ankara can create safe refugee conditions, how Greek authorities (with EU help) must rapidly assess who can be sent back to Turkey, and how European officials must deliver on their promise to loosen visa restrictions for Turks.

Everything — the entire deal — is at stake, and the next few weeks will be the deciding factor, Knaus says. He is meeting with German and Swedish policymakers in the coming days and holding a joint event with Amnesty International in the Netherlands. The latest election results in Germany have shown right-wing, anti-immigrant sentiment might tip the scales. Knaus is convinced there will be more of the same in federal polls in Germany and the Netherlands next year, if Europe doesn’t gain control fast.

He hopes the latest paper will be a key road map for EU and Turkish officials, to guide them back to the negotiating table.

“When you get the sense that things might depend on how persuasive your writing is, then you end up rewriting things obsessively,” he laughed self-consciously. “That’s the stressful part — the sense and privilege that what you write might matter.”

Photo credit: Staten Generaal

Sumi Somaskanda is a freelance journalist living and working in Berlin.

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