(CNN)The failed coup in Turkey and the ensuing crackdown have created new tensions in the EU-Turkey relationship. As the EU has voiced concerns over human rights in Turkey, Turkish officials have threatened to stop implementing the deal Turkey signed last March to take back migrants who had crossed into Greece.
The EU, Turkey and the refugee standoff
Turkey's Foreign Minister explicitly linked the viability of the deal with the EU fulfilling its pledge to grant Turks visa-free travel by October. In response, German Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel spoke of "visa blackmail."
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has warned that thousands of people could make their way into Europe again, should the deal collapse.
Yet on closer inspection this standoff is paradoxical. The two sides are squabbling over a deal that was difficult to implement from the outset, and that ultimately proved ineffective. The collapse of the EU-Turkey agreement constitutes neither a credible threat from Turkey nor an existential danger for the EU.
The refugee deal stipulated that Turkey would accept back migrants who had crossed into Greece, while the EU would resettle refugees directly from Turkey on a one-for-one basis. It was hoped that forced returns to Turkey and the promise of direct resettlement to the EU would dissuade people from making the dangerous crossing. Very soon, refugee flows decreased to the point of ceasing completely.
Yet the deal as such had very little to do with this. Returns to Turkey are proceeding at a very slow pace. The Greek state is overwhelmed, and the promised assistance from the EU is too small to allow individual hearings for migrants who claimed asylum to be handled speedily. Resettlement also proceeds very slowly.
In reality, the refugee flows stopped for two other reasons. First, the so-called Balkan corridor was closed in February when Macedonia (FYROM) sealed its border with Greece, making it almost impossible for migrants to continue their journey to the EU. Second, Turkey effectively blocked human trafficking from its coasts. It is now both more difficult and makes much less sense to set sail from Turkey to Greece.
Why then does the EU appear worried about the collapse of its deal with Turkey? Throughout the crisis, the EU has had to juggle multiple, sometimes conflicting, imperatives. It has had to both live up to its humanitarian values and to respond to calls to stem uncontrolled flows of people, while maintaining the integrity of the Schengen system of free movement between its member states.
The sealing of the Balkan route and reliance on Turkish policing were effective but crude measures. They contradicted the EU's humanitarian pretenses, compromised the integrity of Schengen by isolating Greece, and gave the impression that the EU was outsourcing its border management. The complex provisions of the deal with Turkey instead create the impression that the stemming of flows takes place on the EU's external border under a transparent procedure.
The collapse of the deal would force back into the agenda difficult questions about such issues as EU border management or the destabilization of Greece. The EU worries about these complications, but they do not equate the return to the chaos of 2015.
With 60,000 migrants already stranded in Greece, few others will get on boats should Turkey enable crossings again, and far fewer will trickle into the rest of the EU. European politicians are more worried that these complications will burden the political climate in Europe.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's posturing also allows the EU to avoid fulfilling the most controversial promise of the agreement: visa-free travel.
This was unpopular in broad swaths of European public opinion, and it was always uncertain whether the EU could muster the political will for it to happen. The violent crackdown in Turkey should help the EU to backtrack from this commitment by citing concerns over human rights.
Could Erdogan unleash refugees to extract revenge or placate his audience? This is improbable. Erdogan would terminally alienate the EU, lose any chance of support by the West for his foreign policies, and hurt Turkey's economic relations with Europe if he made reckless use of his refugee "weapon."
While a moderate increase of refugee flows cannot be excluded as Turkey tries to come to new terms with the EU, a huge tide of humans flooding in should not be expected.
The EU-Turkey relationship has undoubtedly entered a difficult period. But the refugee issue is just part of the broader canvas of Turkey's relations with the West that encompasses Syria, jihadism, and relations with players such as Russia and Iran.
Immigration still can severely upset Europe and border management is a perpetual task, but the drama of mass crossings of European borders has few chances of repeating itself.