EU leaders race to quell opposition to Turkey migrant deal

Refugees taking shelter under a train carriage at a camp at the Greek- Macedonian border yesterday, where thousands of refugees and migrants are stranded
Refugees taking shelter under a train carriage at a camp at the Greek- Macedonian border yesterday, where thousands of refugees and migrants are stranded. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Deal that hastens Turkey's entry to EU under fire from Cyprus, UN, human rights activists

BERLIN/BRUSSELS • European leaders scrambled yesterday to salvage an under-fire draft deal with Turkey to ease the migrant crisis with a round of shuttle diplomacy on the eve of a crunch two-day summit which starts today.

The European Union (EU), divided and desperate to end the biggest refugee influx in Europe since World War II, is pinning its hopes on an agreement with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Under the plan hailed as a "game changer", Turkey would seek to stop the dangerous sea journeys of refugees and take back illegal migrants from Greece. For each Syrian it takes back, it would send one on to the EU in a more orderly redistribution programme.

But the proposed deal - which would offer Turkey the carrot of eased visa requirements in the passport-free Schengen zone and an acceleration of long-stalled EU accession talks - has drawn heavy fire on several fronts.

Cyprus has threatened to torpedo the plan over its territorial feud with Turkey, sparking plans for last-ditch talks between European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades ahead of the Brussels summit starting today.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has also questioned the legality of any collective expulsions of asylum seekers from Greece. Many critics have voiced unease over human rights concerns in any deal with Turkey, over its arrests of journalists and academics and an intensifying military campaign against Kurdish separatists.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, a key architect of the plan, faces intense domestic pressure to reduce the mass influx without making too many concessions to Turkey. Czech President Milos Zeman charged that Ankara's request for billions of euros more in EU aid amounted to "blackmail", while the stumbling block has been thrown up by Cyprus.

European Council President Donald Tusk jetted to Nicosia on Tuesday for emergency talks, and Mr Juncker was set to meet Mr Anastasiades to try to ensure the long-festering dispute does not derail the bloc's diplomatic initiative.

The eastern Mediterranean island has been divided since 1974, when Turkish troops invaded its north in response to an Athens-engineered coup attempt. Turkey does not recognise the Cypriot government, and Nicosia has blocked six key chapters of Ankara's negotiations for EU membership since 2009, effectively halting the process.

Mr Tusk has stressed in a note to EU leaders that the planned deal with Turkey will be a "temporary and extraordinary measure".

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 17, 2016, with the headline 'EU leaders race to quell opposition to Turkey migrant deal'. Print Edition | Subscribe