Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu came to the E.U. summit on Monday knowing he had little to lose and lots to gain. He offered more but also demanded more, using the refugee crisis to wrestle support for a long-sought Turkish demand – to become a member of the European Union.
A decision on opening talks to E.U. membership for Turkey could come within the next two weeks, after the leaders in Brussels reached a provisional deal in the early hours of Tuesday but deferred a final agreement to the next summit on March 17-18.
First Mr. Davutoglu surprised E.U. leaders with what he called a “game-changing” offer to take back all new migrants who enter Europe from Turkey, including Syrian refugees, as well as those intercepted in its territorial waters.
But in exchange for stopping the influx of migrants, Mr. Davutoglu laid out Ankara’s demands for more money, quicker visa-free travel and, above all, faster E.U. membership.
In a statement, European leaders broadly supported a deal that would see the European Union taking in one Syrian refugee directly from Turkey for each one returned from Greece's Aegean islands, and allow Turks to travel more easily to Europe, with the possibility of visa requirements being lifted altogether by June 2016.
Turkey must respect the highest standards when it comes to democracy, rule of law and fundamental freedom. Federica Mogherini, E.U. foreign policy chief
The deal also called for accelerating the payment of €3 billion, or $3.3 billion, promised in October and discussing additional funding. Turkey is seeking another €3 billion in aid.
There was also support for opening talks on E.U. membership for Turkey, although that was not the focus of Monday's talks.
"Turkey is ready to work with the E.U.," Mr. Davutoglu told reporters before the summit, adding that the country is also "is ready to become a member" of the economic bloc.
The implementation of these initiatives will not be easy, however.
French President Francois Hollande told reporters the “cooperation with Turkey doesn’t mean accepting everything from Turkey.”
E.U. foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, added the country must “respect the highest standards when it comes to democracy, rule of law and fundamental freedom.”
Ms. Mogherini’s remarks came on the heels of the Turkish government's move on Friday to take over the country’s best-selling newspaper, Zaman, which had been strongly critical of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish president, and his government.
But most E.U. leaders agree they need Turkey’s cooperation if they hope to come to grips with the refugee crisis, its biggest since World War II.
The majority of migrants come to Europe via Turkey, which already is sheltering more than 2.7 million refugees from the civil war in neighboring Syria.
In a televised speech on Monday, Mr. Erdogan said the country had already spent about €10 billion on the Syrian refugees living in camps since 2011. He added that the European Union had been slow to dispurse the €3 billion it had pledged.
More than 2,000 migrants, mostly from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, continue to arrive in Greece daily. Around 13,000 migrants are currently stranded in northern Greece after neighboring Macedonia moved to allow a trickle to pass through its borders.
A deal with Turkey is indispensable for Ms. Merkel’s search for a pan-European solution to the refugee crisis. Only if the country stops those attempting to enter Greece, thus helping E.U. border security, can checks on internal E.U. borders be lifted. These internal controls were gradually reinstated over the last months, and are planned to be removed once again by the end of the year in order to restore the Schengen system.
In their closing statement the E.U. leaders expressed their approval of the lifting of internal border controls. “In this, Turkey has a key role,” Ms. Merkel said.
The chancellor, who is facing the first test of her open-door refugee policy in regional elections on Sunday, is under pressure from voters and Bavarian coalition partners to slow the influx of migrants.
So far, Turkey has not made much headway in implementing the action plan agreed with the E.U. in November 2015. The plan committed Ankara to strengthening its border guard and coastguard forces, as well as taking firm action against people smugglers. However, in February, almost 2,000 people a day were still reaching Greece from Turkey – still far too many, criticized E.U. diplomats attending the summit.
The E.U. will stand by Greece in this difficult moment and do everything possible to cope with the situation. Declaration of E.U.-Turkey summit
The meeting also saw arguments over the so-called Balkan refugee route, an overland passage from Turkey to central and northern Europe, which states have in effect closed by building fences and other border-control measures. Ms. Merkel refused to endorse border closures by Austria and Balkan neighbors by stating that the route was "closed." However the final statement noted: "Irregular flows of migrants along the Western Balkans route have now come to an end."
The route’s closure means that Greece is threatened with a humanitarian crisis, with a large number of refugees trapped in the country, unable to cross into Macedonia or go further into Europe. “The E.U. will stand by Greece in this difficult moment and do everything possible to cope with the situation,” promised the assembled leaders.
E.U. member states were called upon to clarify by April 1 what personnel they would send to Greece to help with border security. In the so-called “hotspots” – centralized reception points established in Greece – 100 percent of incoming migrants must undergo registration and security vetting, stated the declaration.
Last week, the European Commission proposed an emergency assistance package of €700 million, meant to provide support for three years to states particularly badly hit by the crisis. Greece is applying to be given €480 million of this: intended, among other things, for providing food and building new refugee accommodation.
By the beginning of next week, Greece wants to fulfil its commitment to provide accommodation for 30,000 migrants and refugees. New capacity should reach 37,400 places, actually a higher figure than agreed with the E.U., said the Greek government. In addition, the United Nations will make 20,000 short-term accommodation places available.
Thanks to the effective closure of the Balkan route, the number of refugees arriving in Germany has dropped sharply, to only a few hundred a day. According to German federal police, 502 migrants entered the country on Sunday. So far in March, a total of 2,339 have entered, an average of 390 per day.
Austria’s chancellor, Werner Faymann, warned against delegating the E.U.’s border security in the Aegean entirely to Turkey. The E.U. must have the capacity to protect its own borders, he said. At the summit, Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, pushed for a quick build-up of a European border and coastguard. The force should be ready for deployment by summer at the latest, he said.
Starting this week, NATO has forces patrolling the waters between Greece and Turkey. On Monday, the military alliance’s mission to the Aegean Sea – announced some weeks ago – finally began. The initial deployment consisted of four ships, from Germany, Canada, Turkey and Greece, under the collective leadership of a German admiral. The flotilla is to be joined by vessels from France and Britain. Representatives from the Greek and Turkish coastguard will be on board the ships, as well as the European border agency Frontex.
Although NATO’s mission is directed against people smugglers, its initial responsibility will be confined to information gathering. The alliance’s ships will monitor the Turkish coast, alerting Turkish and Greek authorities to refugee boats setting out. Turkey is said to have agreed to accept boats returned to its coastline. Refugees in danger will be picked up by NATO ships.
German government sources said the NATO mission was repeatedly delayed by disagreements between Greece and Turkey. Although the two countries are both NATO members, they enjoy traditionally tense relations. It is felt Turkey is likely take reports of smuggling more seriously coming from from NATO, since the country relies on good relations in the alliance, given the ongoing war in Syria.
Thomas Ludwig is one of Handelsblatt's European Union correspondents in Brussels. He previously reported on German companies and politics. John Blau is a senior editor at Handelsblatt Global Edition. To contact the authors: [email protected] and [email protected].