EU-Turkey Refugee Deal Stuck on Four Issues as Talks Stretch On

EU and Turkey Agree to Refugee Plan
  • Bloc trims incentives for Turkey as Cyprus, others weigh in
  • Greece wins extra EU support to cope with refugee numbers

The European Union sparred with Turkey over efforts to create a legal migration route that would end the chaotic crossings of the Aegean Sea, as the sides broached four issues holding up a deal, according to an official familiar with the discussions.

Disagreements at a two-day summit in Brussels persisted over the legal basis for a joint migration plan, when to implement any such agreement, how to accelerate Turkey’s bid to become a member of the EU and specifics of how to fund the venture, said the official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

EU President Donald Tusk, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and Mark Rutte of the Netherlands met with Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu on Friday to work out a migration deal. The EU and the Turks are trying to iron out their issues as the refugee tide overwhelms social services in parts of Europe and threatens the system of passport-free travel across the continent.

“The EU and Turkey, we have the same goal, the same objective: to help Syrian refugees,” Davutoglu told reporters as he entered the meeting. “I hope we will be achieving our goal to help all the refugees as well as to deepen Turkish-EU relations.”

Dissenting views among EU leaders during negotiations on Thursday led the bloc to scale back incentives for Turkey to shut down human-smuggling gangs operating on its coast, according to draft proposals obtained by Bloomberg News.

While the bloc will still offer Turkey an extra 3 billion euros ($3.4 billion) for refugee facilities by 2018, the leaders watered down assurances made on March 7 about the prospects for Turkey’s membership talks and the waiver of visa requirements on Turkish travelers to Europe.

“We gave a mandate with the positive and negative points for President Tusk to present,” Luxembourg Prime Minister Xavier Bettel said.

Cyprus forced through a declaration that the EU alone would decide if and when to accelerate the entry bid, which has made little progress since starting in 2005 and new question marks were also put over Turkey’s goal of visa-free status by July. EU governments set an end-April deadline for Turkey to meet a 72-point checklist, including the issuance of biometric passports and the dropping of discriminatory rules on Cypriot visitors. So far, it has fully met only 19 of the targets, the European Commission says.

"The desire for visa liberalization means at the same time international legal standards either have to be transferred or assessed into Turkish law," German Chancellor Angela Merkel said.

Some EU officials hoped for a grand bargain that ends years of estrangement from Turkey, while others dwelled on the legal and practical obstacles to the latest plan for coping with the biggest refugee wave since World War II.

From the first trickle of refugees across the central Mediterranean Sea after the Arab revolutions of 2011 to the mass exodus from Syria via Turkey and the Balkans, European crisis management has been condemned to playing permanent catchup.

Aegean Crossings

Some 857,000 people made it across the Aegean Sea to Greece in 2015. Since the March 7 EU-Turkey summit, close to 11,000 have come ashore on the Greek islands, bringing the total on that route to 144,000 so far this year. At least 96 have died trying, the United Nations says.

The latest plan is to fast-track asylum decisions on Greek soil, send back to Turkey those who are ineligible and set up a legal resettlement channel for up to 72,000 Syrians from Turkish refugee camps. Earlier proposals for near-automatic deportations back to Turkey were dropped after objections by human rights defenders.

The EU offer would cover a fraction of the 2.7 million Syrians who have fled to Turkey. Its credibility is open to question after EU governments failed to live up to earlier refugee-resettlement commitments.

The idea is to scare refugees away from the hazardous sea passage and reward those who file legal applications from Turkey. However, concern mounted that enterprising traffickers would divert to other routes, perhaps through the Adriatic Sea to Italy.

Greek Crisis

The scramble is also on to set up impromptu reception centers and asylum courts in Greece, already jammed with 46,000 migrants unable to move on due to border closures further north. Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras lashed out at those “unilateral” moves and demanded extra help for the Greek civil service, which has been sapped by the five-year economic crisis.

EU governments agreed to take the lead in managing the asylum rulings on Greek islands, and stopped insisting that Greece transfer migrants already on the islands to reception centers on the mainland.

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