Time for a Plan B – The European Refugee Crisis, the Balkan Route and the EU-Turkey Deal

A DPC Policy Paper
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Over the course of 2015, an estimated 1.5 million people – the bulk of them refugees from Syria – made their way from Greece to Western Europe via the Balkan route. The shift to this previously marginal route for irregular entry of refugees and migrants into the EU led to the collapse of the EU’s external border in the Aegean and turned the long-standing problem of the EU’s deficient common asylum policy, which disproportionately affected the southern member states, into a full-fledged crisis.

This crisis was of the EU’s own making and could have been avoided with sufficient political will. If the international community had fully funded UNHCR’s Syria refugee response plan rather than providing just 35% of the requested budget in 2015, and if a few EU member states had been willing to resettle 2-300,000 Syrians from Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan, the EU most probably would not have seen more asylum-seekers in 2015 than in previous years.

Instead, the Union’s Dublin system broke down. Following the reinstatement of internal borders in half a dozen member states, so did Schengen, amplified by additional ingredients: the weakness of Greece’s public administration; the fragility of asylum systems, administrative capacities, and democratic policing in the Western Balkans; and the authoritarian transformation of Hungary’s political system.

As late as early autumn 2015, the refugee crisis was still fully manageable. The EU’s immediate response followed the playbook used in various crises from the eurozone crisis onwards – a combination of reactive German leadership supported by a coalition of willing member states. On September 4, Chancellor Merkel, supported by her Austrian counterpart Werner Faymann, arranged with Prime Minister Viktor Orbán for the transit of refugees and migrants from Hungary with the aim to avert an escalation of the situation in that country. Merkel assembled a coalition of willing states that accepted to receive the bulk of refugees and migrants and worked with the countries on the Balkan route to avoid regional tensions over the wave and to achieve an initial smooth transit free of major human rights violations.

This report was made possible with support from the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Serbia. The opinions and views of the author do not necessarily state or reflect those of the Foundation.


Product details
Date of Publication
Septmeber 2016
Democratization Policy Council
Number of Pages
Language of publication
Table of contents

Executive Summary and Summary of Recommendations


The Balkan Route: From “Balkanization” to coordinated crisis Management

  • Before the storm
  • Initial chaos, repressive reflexes and the absent state
  • Hungary closes its borders
  • From national segregation to daily quotas – with irregular means towards gradual closure
  • The alternative Balkan route – Bulgaria, the EU’s star pupil

The European Union: From Dublin breakdown to “Balkanization”

  • Before the crisis: a broken Dublin system
  • The collapse of Dublin and Schengen
  • Greece
  • Hungary
  • Berlin seizes leadership – and gets stuck in transition
  • Triage in the absence of Union
  • The debate shifts from Dublin to Schengen
  • The collapse of the coalition of the willing

Outsourcing the Solution to EU’s Problems – The EU-Turkey Deal

  • Re-engagement
  • The November 29 EU-Turkey Joint Action Plan
  • The March 18 EU-Turkey deal

Conclusions and recommendations

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