Migrant crisis: EU hopeful of Turkish action

But officials express concern before summit over Ankara's crackdown on media freedom

BRUSSELS • European Union leaders expressed guarded optimism before a summit with Turkey that Ankara was finally ready to act to curb a flood of migrants crossing illegally into Europe. They also voiced concern, tinged with embarrassment, that increased Turkish cooperation coincides with a crackdown on media freedom that runs counter to cherished European values.

The EU is taking care not to alienate Ankara just as hopes are rising of a solution to the migration problem. The bloc will ask Turkey to accept "large-scale" deportations of economic migrants from Greece, and do more to implement a deal struck last November to slow the flow of people into the bloc.

Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said the half-day meeting, scheduled for yesterday, would also address Ankara's bid to join the EU and he hoped for a "turning point", adding that Turkey was indispensable to the EU, just as Europe was to Turkey.

EU officials said Mr Davutoglu had raised the stakes, however, by demanding much more cash than the €3 billion (S$4.5 billion) pledged to help the 2.9 million Syrian refugees Turkey is housing, faster moves to negotiate Turkish membership of the EU and an immediate easing of EU visa rules for Turks.

Before the summit, EU officials told Mr Davutoglu of their concerns about human rights after the Turkish government seized control of a critical newspaper. European Parliament president Martin Schulz said he had told him that media freedom was "a non-negotiable element of our European identity". But the migrant crisis meant the EU needed to work with Turkey even if it was in "total disagreement" with its policies, he said.

The Financial Times also reported on Sunday that Brussels is to propose centralising claims for asylum in the EU. The European Commission will make the proposal as part of a radical overhaul of its refugee policy to be announced at a summit of EU leaders on March 17, the newspaper reported. "According to draft reform options seen by the Financial Times, responsibility for all asylum claims could be shifted to the European Asylum Support Office," it said. Currently, asylum seekers must lodge claims in the first EU country they arrive in.

However, Britain would not join the possible system, British Prime Minister David Cameron said yesterday. " We'll have our own asylum approach, our own way of doing things, keeping our borders," he said on arriving for the EU-Turkey summit yesterday.

And with tens of thousands of migrants stranded in Greece by border closures, the summit may formally declare closed the Balkan route from Greece to Germany used by most of the migrants to reach Europe, diplomats said.

But at the last minute, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker insisted that a mention of the route closure be dropped from the proposed closing statement of the summit in Brussels, European sources said.

"On the issue of how we can decrease the number of refugees, not just for some countries but for all countries including Greece, the issue cannot be that something is closed, but that we find a sustainable solution with Turkey," Dr Merkel said as she arrived in Brussels.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 08, 2016, with the headline 'Migrant crisis: EU hopeful of Turkish action'. Print Edition | Subscribe