Photographer: Chris McGrath/Getty Images

EU Nears Deal on Migrant Cap as Turkey Raises Its Asking Price

  • Turkey's plea for doubling of financial aid surprises EU
  • Detail on stemming refugee inflow put off to March 17 summit

European Union leaders edged toward an agreement with Turkey to halt the inflow of migrants, with the Turkish government jacking up the price for serving as the EU’s defensive barrier.

QuickTake Europe’s Refugee Crisis

Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu caught EU leaders off-balance with a plea for last-minute concessions at a Brussels summit, calling on the bloc to double its financial aid to Turkey to 6 billion euros ($6.6 billion). Turkey paired that request with its most serious offer yet to stop the traffic of refugees across the Aegean Sea into Europe, hinting at a possible breakthrough as soon as the next summit on March 17-18.

Ahmet Davutoglu addresses the media on March 8.

Photographer: Jasper Juinen/Bloomberg

While EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker called plans for Turkey to take back migrants “a real game-changer,” others were more reserved. “It’s a small step forward,” Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi told reporters early Tuesday after the summit. “But there remains much work yet to be done.”

Leaders agreed to hammer out the detail of the proposal in time for next week’s summit. Evidence of progress made this week may not be enough for German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who had pressed for a deal to stave off defeats for her party in three regional elections on Sunday. She said that Turkey’s offer “could and will bring with it a qualitative change if it’s implemented.”

EU leaders are staking the solution to the refugee crisis, the restoration of open borders within Europe and some of their own political fates on the accord with Turkey -- the same country that, for a decade, came under increasing EU criticism for flouting European democratic standards.

Some leaders declined to sign up to a final agreement now because they lacked the authorization from their parliaments to cobble together an additional 3 billion euros in humanitarian aid for Turkey so soon after pledging an initial 3 billion euros in November.

Davutoglu stressed that the money won’t be pocketed by the Turkish government. “Every penny will be spent for Syrian refugees,” he said. “Not even a single euro will be spent for Turkish citizens.”

The leaders didn’t mention doubling the aid, but vowed swifter delivery of the initial 3 billion euros. They also backed Turkey’s requests for a speedup of its largely moribund bid to become an EU member and for a decision in June to waive visa requirements on Turkish citizens traveling to Europe.

‘Good Start’

Turkey has made a “good start” in halting the refugee stream, with weekly arrivals in Greece dropping to 8,002 in early February from 27,069 in mid-December, according to the European Commission. However, that number has since picked up, to 17,730 in late February.

Turkish Coast Guard rescue refugees

Photographer: Emin Menguarslan/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Caught in the middle is Greece, the first EU stopping-off point on the route from Turkey and now choked with refugees in a humanitarian drama that comes on top of five years of non-stop economic crisis.

EU leaders will move ahead with food, medical support and housing for refugees trapped in Greece as countries further north throw up barriers to restrict passage. Greece will be the main beneficiary of a package of 700 million euros that will start flowing next week, the statement said.

EU Divisions

The haggling brought the EU’s divisions over refugees back into the open, with Hungary leading a shut-the-borders faction in eastern Europe, and showed Turkey’s leverage over the 28-nation bloc as it strives to keep out thousands of Syrians, Iraqis, Afghans and others.

U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron, keen to give British voters a reason to stay in the bloc in June’s in-or-out referendum, spoke of “the basis for a breakthrough.” He called the understanding “significant, but only if fully implemented.”

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban objected again to the airlifting of eligible Syrian refugees from Turkey to new lives in Europe, a key element in a future EU-Turkey accord. Some 22,000 are covered by an initial direct-resettlement scheme passed last year.

Media Freedom

EU leaders also squirmed at Turkey’s simultaneous crackdown on domestic dissenters, after the government seized control of a major opposition newspaper on Friday and one of the country’s main wire services on Monday.

“Will the EU let itself be humiliated over media freedom in Turkey?” Christophe Deloire, secretary general of Reporters Without Borders, said in a statement as the summit unfolded.

The European answer, in the post-summit statement, was that “situation of the media in Turkey” was aired. French President Francois Hollande said the emerging accord doesn’t amount to an endorsement of Erdogan’s civil rights practices. “Cooperation with Turkey doesn’t mean accepting everything from Turkey,” he said.

Since starting the entry talks in 2005, Turkey has made it 1/35th of the way through a checklist of laws and policies required of all EU members. EU officials pointed out that accelerating the process would force Turkey to uphold media freedoms and strengthen protections for minorities and women.

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