Faced with a refugee crisis they seem unable to control, EU leaders last night (15 October) tried to accommodate ambitious demands by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdo?an, just two weeks before crucial elections in Turkey.
EU leaders met in Brussels for a fourth consecutive summit on migration, the crux of which saw tentative offers of further cash for Ankara to help with its refugee problem, in return for a possible speeding up of progress of visa-liberalisation for Turks, some movement on Turkey’s long-stalled EU membership, and strengthening the EU external border.
Yesterday morning in Ankara, Commission First-Vice President Frans Timmermans had agreed with his Turkish counterparts a “package” in exchange for Turkey’s help in stemming the flow of refugees to the EU.
Turkey had previously given a lukewarm response to a Commission plan tabled during the visit of Erdo?an to Brussels on 5 October. The EU’s plan said funding was available for all the steps involved, and also for renewing promises to mobilise up to €1 billion to help Turkey cope with its Syrian and Iraqi refugees.
>> Read: Turkey frowns at EU refugee aid plan
Erdo?an said two weeks ago that Turkey is currently hosting close to 2.5 million refugees – 2.2 million of them Syrians fleeing the four-and-a-half year conflict in their country, and 300,000 Iraqis. Turkey bitterly complains it has so far spent $7.8 billion on hosting the refugees and accuses the EU of failing to share the burden.
Timmerman reportedly conveyed Turkish demands for a yearly payment of €3 billion, visa-free travel for the Turkish nationals to the EU, the opening of five accession negotiation chapters, regular summits between the Turkish President and the 28 EU heads of state and government, and the classification of Turkey as a ‘safe’ country of origin.
As the summit was ongoing, EU officials said they were unaware of the details of the demands and of the possible basis for agreement. Timmermans apparently only had the time to inform his boss Jean-Claude Juncker, who represents the Commission at EU summits, before the meeting.
When Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and Council President Donald Tusk appeared in front of the press at the conclusion of the summit, just after midnight, they announced an “Action Plan” with Turkey. Tusk called it a “major step” in the direction of stemming the migratory flows that go via Turkey to the EU. But he added that the agreement only made sense if it effectively contained the flow of refugees.
“The ‘more from’ principle must apply: you help us, we help you”, Tusk said.
Juncker said that the visa liberalisation process would be accelerated, but that the EU wouldn’t back down from its usual criteria for lifting the visa requirement.
The summit conclusions are spelled out in language which could be interpreted in different ways. Leaders welcomed the ‘Action Plan’ and said its successful implementation would contribute to “accelerating the fulfilment of the visa liberalisation roadmap toward all participating member states and the full implementation of the readmission agreement”.
The readmission agreement would bind Turkey to accept back not only its own nationals, but the nationals from third countries who have crossed illegally into the EU coming from Turkey.
Progress on visa liberalisation will be assessed in spring 2016, the conclusions say. In fact, Turkey wants visas to be lifted in the first half of 2016.
Regarding money, the conclusions only stated that the EU and its member states “stand ready to increase cooperation with Turkey and step up their political and financial engagement substantially under the established framework”.
EU diplomats compared Turkey’s demands for cash to a “Christmas shopping list” and said such amounts of cash were simply unavailable. But German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the figure of €3 billion had been discussed and seemed reasonable.
Juncker, who warned that heads of state and government need to deliver on their promise to contribute a total of €2.25 billion to help address the refugee crisis, expressed cautious optimism that the summit had provided the opportunity to progress on this issue.
It is expected that member states would send hundreds more border guards to the EU agency for the management of the external borders, Frontex, and to the European Asylum Support Office (EASO) to secure the hotspot areas in Greece and Italy.
Tusk admitted that discussion on the future of the Dublin regulation, on the EU border guard system and on the specific role of hotspots had been divisive. He added, “If we are not able to find humanitarian and efficient solutions, then others will find solutions which are inhumane, nationalistic and for sure not European”.
One issue on which leaders have reportedly spent a lot of time was Germany’s insistence of including a reference to the permanent resettlement mechanism for refugees, by mentioning the Commission proposal in the conclusions. The Visegrad countries (Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and Poland), whose leaders met just before the summit, had adopted a common position that the European Council should stay away from divisive issues such as the permanent relocation mechanism.
The Parliamentary elections on 1 November in Turkey, the second this year, are largely seen as a gamble by Erdo?an to regain a majority for his AKP party. It is likely that by positioning himself as the leader dictating conditions to Europe his political support might get a boost.
The Commission strangely postponed the publication of its reports which monitor the situation in the countries with a perspective for EU accession, which normally are announced at this time of the year. The reason, as one diplomat said, is that no one dares to criticise Turkey these days.
Two leaders missing
Two leaders were represented at the summit by heads of state or government of other countries. EU law permits this, although such absences are extremely exceptional. It was known before the summit that Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras will represent the President of Cyprus, Nicos Anastasiades, who had departed for an official visit to China.
Nicosia says the visit had been planned “long ago”, but the EU summit has been as well, and many believe Cyprus made a diplomatic move to help fellow EU members tackle the Turkish dossier without fearing a Cyprus veto.
The case of the Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov, who skipped the final part of the summit, was different – but highly topical. Borissov was informed of an incident at the Bulgarian-Turkish border, in which an Afghan immigrant had been shot dead by Bulgarian border guards.
Borissov left the summit to return to his country and delegated his powers to Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite.
In statements to the Bulgarian press, Borissov had previously advocated setting up a security zone in Syria, an idea dear to Erdo?an.