March 3, 2020

EUROPE: Migration crisis 2.0? Why this time is different

BY Wolfango Piccoli, Andrius Tursa, Carsten Nickel, Luis Cornago

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( 7 mins)
  • Since the 2015 migration crisis, the political balance has shifted in many countries along the infamous “Balkan route,” but also in Greece, Turkey, and Northern Syria.
  • Following the pushback against German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s brief open-borders policy, the majority view is now that “2015 must not repeat itself.”
  • Turkey is aggressively demanding more help from Europe, not least because its strategy of dealing with Russia, the new power broker in Syria, has backfired.
  • In this piece, we are traveling from the northern end to the southern starting point of the migration trail, analyzing the change in political dynamics along the way.

Northwest Europe

Back in 2015, Scandinavian countries were the first ones to push back against Merkel by closing their borders with Germany. In Denmark, the center-right government has since been replaced by the Social Democrats. However, PM Mette Fredriksen campaigned in the 2019 elections with a restrictive positioning on immigration and has since opposed an EU-wide mechanism to distribute migrants.

In Germany, Merkel’s Christian Democrats have effectively been in a leadership vacuum after the chancellor lost control of her party over the events in 2015. The prospect of another migration crisis is already providing material for rightist contenders currently campaigning for the CDU leadership. The far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) has been thriving. Germany will not open its borders again.

Berlin might not even feel the need to signal its policy reversal too clearly, as in neighboring Austria, political change has been much more pronounced. The centrist grand coalition broke up also over the migration question. This had led to the meteoric rise of conservative Chancellor Sebastian Kurz. Despite his coalition with the Greens, Kurz has been clear that help can be provided to Greece, but if that were to fail, Austria would close its borders.

Central and Eastern Europe

The political situation in Hungary has not changed much since 2015. Prime Minister Viktor Orban continues to rely on harsh anti-immigrant rhetoric to mobilize his supporters despite very limited flows of refugees in recent years and the installation of modern barriers along Hungary’s southern borders with Serbia and Croatia. Another migration crisis would only reinforce Orban’s political position and his anti-immigrant stance.

Since the 2015 migrant crisis, Bulgaria’s center-right coalition government led Boyko Borisov (GERB) has erected a border fence with Turkey and is now ready to deploy additional police forces and even the army to patrol the border. Also, close political ties between Borisov and the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan means that refugee flows in Turkey are redirected away from the Bulgarian border towards Greece.


Unlike in 2016, Greece’s border with North Macedonia is now well secured. The way to northern Europe is, therefore, much more complicated than it was in 2015 and 2016. This leaves Greece as the single most exposed country to the problem. The refugee issue is already causing political headaches for PM Kyriakos Mitsotakis. Over the seven months he has been in power, migration is the only area where there has been a high level of dissatisfaction with his government, prompting some senior officials in his center-right party to call for tougher measures.

For now, the crisis seems to have encouraged the public to rally around the flag as Erdogan’s actions are being interpreted as an attempt to destabilize Greece or trigger a so-called “hybrid war.” Athens has stepped up its sea and land border controls and suspended asylum rules for a month by invoking article 78.1 of the EU treaty. The government is well-aware that support from the EU will be limited and that it will have to deal with the matter alone. Athens’ key priority is to get Brussels to approve the temporary suspension to asylum applications. Greek PM Kyriakos Mitsotakis also managed to convince the presidents of the European Council, European Commission and European Parliament to travel today, 3 March, to the Greek-Turkish land border in a show of support for Athens.

While the Greek authorities can try to limit arrivals via the land border (the army has been deployed), sealing the vast coastline is simply impossible. As of the morning of 2 March, some 1,200 migrants had arrived by boat in Greek islands

EUROPE: Migration crisis 2.0? Why this time is different 1


Turkish authorities have been openly encouraging refugees to reach the borders with Greece. Buses provided by municipalities and a private company close to the ruling AK Party are used to organize transports to the border. Ultimately, President Tayyip Erdogan is driven by his need for help from Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron after his gamble on Russia backfired in Northern Syria. Specifically, Erdogan needs the Europeans to convince Russian President Vladimir Putin to let the Turkish troops create the desired buffer zone inside (around 30km deep) Northern Syria, in the area between the border and Idlib. This long-standing goal of Erdogan is unlikely to materialize. At most, Russia may let Turkey control a thin (around 10km deep) strip of land next to the border. However, the circumstances on the ground are currently not conducive to such a deal.

There are now around 1mn civilians at the Syrian border with Turkey. They left Idlib due to the advance of the Syrian forces, backed by Russia. Politically, Erdogan cannot let an additional 1mn refugees in, as the presence of some 3.6mn refugees has become politically toxic for him. Unlike 2016, therefore, EU money alone is unlikely to convince Ankara. The conditionality attached to the disbursement of funds provided by the 2016 EU-Turkey deal (EUR 6bn available of which around EUR 3.2 has been already disbursed) might have to be loosened, and Europe could also be required to promise more money for the future reconstruction of a Turkish-controlled buffer zone in Northern Syria.

Turkey will also try to bring back on the agenda some of its long-standing requests, such as the update to the Customs Union agreement and the lifting of visa requirements for Turkish citizens. Above all, Erdogan’s decision to “open the gates” is driven by mere domestic considerations and not based on a realistic and sound assessment of what Turkey can try to extract from the EU.

Northern Syria

Turkey has launched an offensive in Idlib following the airstrike, but Erdogan will travel to his 5 March talks with Putin in Moscow in a position of weakness. Russian-backed forces have made significant gains outside of Idlib. Moscow’s primary goal is to help Assad establish complete control of Syrian territory, and Putin will continue to support territorial seizures until he receives a signal that this strategy is not working. The only way for Russia to agree to concessionary terms is probably if these are granted on Moscow’s terms.

This will, then, probably limit what the Europeans can do in the short term to appease Ankara. Some German politicians, for instance, realize that Erdogan’s actions are essentially a call for help after his gamble on Putin backfired. But the idea among some in Berlin that additional sanctions on Russia could trigger a change in Moscow’s long-standing strategic goal in Syria appears rather naive. A solution to the crisis in Idlib is not on the horizon, but a temporary de-escalation is likely to be agreed by Putin and Erdogan on 5 March.

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