EU agrees ‘joint position’ to put to Turkey on Friday

Donald Tusk [European Council]

EU leaders agreed in the early hours of Friday morning on a “common position” to put to Turkey on a controversial asylum seeker for returned migrant swap deal, but with enough disagreement among the 28 leaders to prevent publication of an agreed text.

After some five hours of talks, heads of government headed home at 1AM on 18 March.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, EU Council President Donald Tusk, and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte are now due to meet Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu for breakfast on Friday with a “mandate” to negotiate the ‘one-for-one’ exchange of Syrian asylum seekers in Greece back to Turkey.

But according to a senior EU official, while there was a “common position”, there was “no agreement on the text” from the bloc’s 28 members meeting for the summit in Brussels.

There were a “few elements in the revised text that are not acceptable to everyone”, the official added.

But if a deal is reached on Friday, Chancellor Angela Merkel said it would only be “days” before resettlement started.

We did not specify dates as the talks are ongoing. We are not talking about weeks, only a few days before resettlements will have to be initiated.”

The essential details of the potential deal – a return of Syrian irregular migrants arriving in Greece to Turkey, on a one-for-one basis whereby the EU accepts Syrian asylum seekers presently in Turkish camps –  will now  be discussed at the Tusk, Juncker and Davutoğlu  breakfast.

The Turkish delegation was not present on Thursday evening, although officials said there had been constant contact with Ankara.

EU leaders were told to be on “30 minutes notice” for further talks on Friday.

A planned press conference from Tusk and Juncker was cancelled just after midnight, with negotiations still at a delicate stage.

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Chancellor Merkel did, however, speak to the press. She said, “We talked about the cornerstones of the agreement. There was a constructive atmosphere.

“Tomorrow the negotiations will be anything but easy,” she warned.

Earlier in the evening, EU officials stressed any deal to return refugees and migrants would be implemented “soon”.

They refused to put a date on it, saying that firstly the infrastructure of translators and officials to process applications needed to be put in place on the ground in Greece.

That process must not take too long, they said, in order to avoid a rush of migrants setting sail to Greece to avoid an artificial deadline.

Spain’s Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy, said after the talks, that “any position adopted should be in line with international law, otherwise we cannot support the conclusions, and to ensure the right for asylum and no massive expulsions.”

Rajoy said that for Spain, it was key to “respect international law. We requested to include this, and it’s been included.We didn’t discuss the role of UNHCR but I think it should be important”.

A senior EU official said that Tusk had “understood everyone’s red lines”.

In return for the swap deal, Turkey wants an acceleration of its bid for EU membership, visa free travel for Turks to the EU and a doubling of EU aid for refugees in Turkey.

The draft conclusions only add smaller changes to the proposals which the EU agreed with Turkey during an extraordinary summit in Brussels last week.

The final text, which will be discussed with the Turks again on Friday (18 March), is meant to ensure a stronger cooperation with Turkey in order to solve the migration crisis effectively.

It will stress that the resettlement of Syrian refugees from Greece to Turkey will occur on an individual case basis, but executed within days, not weeks.

Some of the changes to the initial text, first agreed on 7 March, also include changes to the chapters for the Turkey accession to the EU.

The wording on the additional €3 billion for Turkey remain, as yet, unchanged, but the EU intends to propose more funding for Greece and Syrian refugees taken back to Turkey, German Chancellor Angela Merkel confirmed during a press conference.

”It’s our intention to put more funds on the table exclusively for Syrian refugees,” she said.

The proposed deal with Turkey also has stronger wording condemning the terror attacks in Ankara over the weekend, a specification of which costs the EU will cover regarding the return of refugees to Turkey, and new language on visa liberalisation, stressing that “all benchmarks would have to have been met first,” an EU source confirmed.

There are 72 benchmarks that must be reached by Turkey before visa liberalisation can take place, and so far 50-60 remain to be met, according to Merkel.

The Greeks have also demanded that there will be no wording in the deal on how refugees on the Greek islands are transferred to its mainland.

Shortly after the summit last week, some countries, including Austria, Hungary, France and Spain, criticised some of the Turkish proposals as well as openly doubting the legality of the deal under international law.

Turkey will have to live up to standards ensuring rights for refugees under the 1951 Geneva Convention, which the country has never ratified, and Greece will have to change its laws to state that Turkey is a so-called ’safe country’ to send refugees to.

Council President Donald Tusk stressed that he was ”more cautious than optimistic” that the negotiations would be fruitful.

But an EU source told that there had been “no loaded gun since Wednesday” and “no confrontational mood among EU leaders” during the summit.

At his press conference French President François Hollande said that, “even if an agreement was signed, the source of the problem was not solved, and the issue of migration would stay entire”.

He warned the next migration crisis could come from Libya with this summer.

He said Hollande assured that no breach in human rights or press freedom could be accepted in Turkey.

Merkel also said that Poland had objected to visa liberalisation for Turkey.

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