'Breakthrough' in talks on EU's migrant crisis

In return for taking in illegal migrants who land on Greek islands, Mr Davutoglu wants an extra three billion euros (S$4.6 billion) in aid and visa-free travel for Turks to the bloc by June.
In return for taking in illegal migrants who land on Greek islands, Mr Davutoglu wants an extra three billion euros (S$4.6 billion) in aid and visa-free travel for Turks to the bloc by June.PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

Turkey offers one-for-one refugee swop; final deal to be worked out at summit next week

BRUSSELS • European Union (EU) leaders have 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.

Hours after the talks, refugees and migrants stranded at Greece's border with Macedonia yesterday vowed to keep on trying to cross. On Turkey's Aegean coast, would-be migrants also said they would continue attempting perilous sea crossings.

Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu on Monday stunned his 28 EU counterparts in Brussels when he suddenly asked for an extra three billion euros (S$4.6 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 Sy- rian 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. Mr Tusk, who toured Turkey, Greece and the Balkans in the run-up to the summit, said it was a major step in ending the conti- nent'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.

But the UN refugee agency said yesterday that the European Union's "quick fix" deal would contravene the migrants' right to protection under European and international law.

"The collective expulsion of foreigners is prohibited under the European Convention of Human Rights," Mr Vincent Cochetel, Europe regional director of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, told a news briefing in Geneva.

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 neighbouring Syria, more than any other country.

Ankara has nevertheless proved a difficult partner, failing to honour an earlier three-billion-euro deal with the EU in November and continually pushing Turkey's long- stalled EU membership bid.

But Mr 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 refugee swop deal was "game-changing" and denied that Turkey was "demanding" money, urging the world to share the burden of hosting Syrian refugees.

But securing a deal next week may still be difficult, given the divisions that the migrant crisis has sown in the bloc, analysts said.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 09, 2016, with the headline ''Breakthrough' in talks on EU's migrant crisis'. Print Edition | Subscribe