BRUSSELS • European Union leaders and Turkey have agreed on a "historic" deal to help stem the refugee crisis and counter terrorism, aided by an EU pledge to relaunch Turkey's membership bid and an assistance package for refugees.
EU government chiefs met Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu in Brussels on Sunday as they attempted to implore Turkey to help deal with the fallout from turmoil in Syria and the rest of the Middle East.
In return for Turkey bolstering its border controls, Europe is dangling rewards that could bring the nation closer to the EU than it has been for almost a decade. Ankara's EU membership bid will be kick-started in return for its cooperation in preventing the 2.2 million Syrian refugees it hosts from coming to Europe, EU president Donald Tusk said.
"We expect a major step towards changing the rules of the game when it comes to stemming the migration flow that is coming to the EU via Turkey," Mr Tusk said at a press conference with Mr Davutoglu and European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker at the conclusion of the summit.
"We will also step up our assistance to Syrian refugees in Turkey through a new Refugee Facility of €3 billion (S$4.5 billion)," the former Polish premier added. "Our agreement sets out a clear plan for the timely re-establishment of order at our shared frontier."
Turkey's progress in meeting the terms would be reviewed at least once a month, he said.
Mr Davutoglu said it was a "historic day" and vowed that his country would keep its promises, in the face of scepticism from some countries in the 28-member EU.
Mr Davutoglu, standing in for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, said the deal would "re-energise" Turkey's EU accession process, which has made little headway since it started in 2005. "Turkey will be fulfilling all the promises of the joint plan," he said, adding that "this €3 billion is to be spent for refugees in Turkey; it's not for Turkey".
Under the agreement, Turkey, the main gateway for migrants and refugees to reach Europe, will take steps including cracking down on people smugglers and cooperating with the EU on the return of people who do not qualify as refugees.
In return, negotiations on Turkey's EU membership bid will restart as early as Dec 14 by opening talks on economic and monetary issues. In a further concession to Turkey, the EU agreed to hold two summits with the country each year. Brussels also committed to easing the visa requirements for Turks visiting the EU's passport-free Schengen area by next October.
A long history of wariness between Brussels and Ankara, coupled with European concerns over human rights and Turkey's role in the Syrian conflict, including the shooting down of a Russian warplane in the last week, made the negotiations difficult.
Some leaders issued a note of caution, signalling some reticence in their support for speeding up Turkey's EU membership bid and granting financial aid. The EU membership process for Turkey has "been going on for years and there is no reason to accelerate or slow it", French President Francois Hollande said as he left the meeting. "As Turkey shows its commitments for refugees, the money will be distributed."
Mr Juncker insisted the €3 billion was "not being given with no strings attached". He also added that "we have not forgotten the differences that still remain with Turkey over human rights and freedom of the press, and we will return to them".
BLOOMBERG, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE