European Union leaders late on Monday hailed a “breakthrough” in talks with Turkey on a deal to curb the migrant crisis but delayed a decision until a summit next week to flesh out the details of Ankara’s new demands.
Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu stunned his 28 EU counterparts in Brussels when he suddenly asked for an extra 3 billion euros (US$3.3 billion) in aid and visa-free travel for Turks to the bloc by June.
In return he proposed to take back all illegal migrants landing on the overstretched Greek islands, and suggested a one-for-one deal under which the EU would resettle one Syrian refugee from camps in Turkey in exchange for every Syrian that Turkey takes from Greece.
After EU leaders “warmly welcomed” Turkey's proposals, EU president Donald Tusk said he would now work on the legal details to reach a final deal at a European summit in Brussels on March 17-18.
“We all of us are aware that in fact we have a breakthrough now,” he told a post-summit press conference.
Tusk, who toured Turkey, Greece and the Balkans in the run-up to the summit, said it was a major step in ending the continent's biggest migration crisis since World War II.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel – who has been the strongest proponent of a deal with Turkey, partly to offset the impact of her own open-door asylum policy – gave cautious backing to the deal.
“It is a breakthrough if it becomes reality,” she told reporters.
Muslim-majority Turkey is the main launching point for the more than one million migrants who have made the dangerous crossing over the Aegean Sea to the Greek islands since the start of 2015. It hosts 2.7 million refugees from the five-year civil war in neighboring Syria, more than any other country.
Ankara has nevertheless proved a difficult partner, failing to honor an earlier 3-billion-euro deal with the EU in November and continually pushing Turkey’s long-stalled EU membership bid.
But Davutoglu surprised EU leaders on Monday by offering to take all irregular migrants from Greece, a step that would relieve the pressure on debt-hit Athens and the whole of the EU.
He said the one-for-one Syrian refugee swap deal was “game-changing” and denied that Turkey was “demanding” money, urging the world to share the burden of hosting Syrian refugees.
European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker also called the plan a “real game changer,” insisting that it was “legally feasible” despite questions from rights groups about whether it would breach international laws on the treatment of refugees.
EU sources said the bloc had already identified 70,000 places for Syrians resettled from Turkish camps.
For Turkey perhaps the biggest win was the EU’s agreement to push forward to June visa-free travel to the EU’s Schengen passport-free area for Turkey’s 75 million people, provided that Ankara honors its promises.
He further pushed for the opening of five more “chapters” in Turkey’s long-drawn out EU accession process – so far it has only completed one out of more than 30.
But securing a deal next week may still be difficult given the deep divisions that the migration crisis has sown in the bloc.
Hungary's hardline anti-migration Prime Minister Viktor Orban may veto the resettlement deal.
There is still bad blood in Ankara too, with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan – who has previously threatened to “flood” the EU with migrants – on Monday criticizing the EU for a four-month delay in disbursing the funds from the November deal.
Meanwhile the EU chastised Turkey over its crackdown on the country’s biggest opposition newspaper, with Tusk warning that Ankara’s EU accession was dependent on freedom of the press.
While the EU has identified Turkey as the main pillar of its migration policy, the bloc still faces a host of other challenges.
Deep rifts emerged in recent weeks over the main migrant route through the Western Balkans to wealthy Germany, after border restrictions by Austria triggered a domino effect of frontier closures that left tens of thousands of migrants stranded at the border between Greece and non-EU Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.
In its closing statement the EU leaders said that the “irregular flows of migrants along the Western Balkans route have now come to an end.”
Next week the EU leaders must agree on a plan to restore the Schengen area to full functioning by the end of the year, after parts were effectively suspended by border closures.
They are also set to approve a 700-million-euro aid plan for Greece, whose Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras has vowed that he will not let the rest of the EU turn his country into a “warehouse of souls.”