EU Welcomes Turkey Plan to Stop Migrants

EU Welcomes Turkey Plan to Stop MigrantsEU Welcomes Turkey Plan to Stop Migrants

European Union leaders welcomed Turkey’s offer on Monday to take back all migrants who cross into Europe from its soil and agreed in principle to Ankara’s demands for more money, faster EU membership talks and quicker visa-free travel in return.

However, key details remained to be worked out and the 28 leaders ordered more work by officials with a view to reaching an ambitious package deal with Turkey at their next scheduled summit on March 17-18, Reuters reported.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British PM David Cameron among others hailed the Turkish proposal at an emergency summit in Brussels as a potential breakthrough in Europe’s politically toxic migration crisis.

More than a million people fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East and beyond have flooded into the EU since early 2015, most making the perilous sea crossing from Turkey to Greece, then heading north through the Balkans to Germany.

Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told EU leaders that Ankara was willing to take back all migrants who enter Europe from Turkey in future, including Syrian refugees, as well as those intercepted in its territorial waters.

In exchange for stopping the influx, he demanded doubling EU funding through 2018 to help Syrian refugees stay in Turkey and a commitment to take in one Syrian refugee directly from Turkey for each one returned from Greece’s Aegean islands, according to a document seen by Reuters.

He also asked to bring forward EU visa liberalization for Turks to June from end-2016 and to open five more negotiating chapters in Turkey’s long-stalled EU accession process.

The EU leaders agreed to the earlier target date for visa-free travel provided Ankara meets all the conditions, including changing its visa policy toward Muslim states and introducing harder-to-fake biometric passports.

They left open how much additional aid they would provide for refugees in Turkey and made only a vague reference to preparing for a decision on opening more areas of membership talks, a particularly sensitive issue for Cyprus.

European Council President Donald Tusk, who chaired the summit, said the outcome would show migrants that there was no longer a path into Europe for people seeking a better life.

“The days of irregular migration to Europe are over,” he told a joint news conference with Davutoglu.

Merkel, who requested the special summit to show results before regional elections in Germany next Sunday, said: “The Turkish proposal is a breakthrough, if it is implemented, to break the chain from getting into a boat to settling in Europe.”

Desperate to end the influx of Syrians, Iraqis, Afghans and others, EU leaders brushed off warnings from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees that the EU should not shut its doors and should be willing to take in hundreds of thousands more refugees from Turkey.

Davutoglu said the summit showed how indispensable Turkey was for Europe, and Europe for Turkey.

At a preparatory meeting with Merkel and Rutte on Sunday night, he demanded double the €3 billion ($3.29 billion) earmarked so far to support Syrian refugees in Turkey.

Diplomats said Merkel and Rutte pressed hard for a deal on the Turkish plan but met resistance from central European states opposed to taking refugee quotas, as well as from Greece and Cyprus which have conditions for the Turkish accession talks.

Three days after the Turkish government seized the best-selling opposition newspaper Zaman, the leaders said they had discussed the situation of the media in Turkey with Davutoglu.

Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi said he had insisted on a reference to media freedom in the final statement.

The EU leaders pledged to help Greece cope with a backlog of migrants stranded on its soil and welcomed NATO naval backup in the Aegean Sea to help stop people smugglers.