BRUSSELS – Turkey ratcheted up its demands for helping the EU with the migrant crisis at a high-stakes summit in Brussels on Monday, demanding an extra €3 billion in aid in return for its cooperation.
Ankara is also haggling for a refugee swap under which the European Union would resettle one Syrian refugee from Turkey in exchange for every Syrian refugee that Turkey takes back from the overstretched Greek islands.
Under the last-minute proposals by Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, the 28-nation bloc would also bring forward visa-free travel for Turks to June, and speed up its EU membership bid.
The EU is paying an increasingly high price to secure Turkey’s help in dealing with the biggest migration crisis since World War II, but has little choice as Turkey is the main launching point for the Greek islands.
In Ankara, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan criticized the EU for a four-month delay in disbursing an original €3 billion in aid for 2016-17 under a deal agreed in November.
“It’s been four months. They are yet to deliver,” Erdogan said in a speech in Ankara. “Mr. prime minister is currently in Brussels. I hope he will return with the money.”
More than 1 million refugees and migrants have arrived in Europe since the start of 2015 — the majority fleeing the war in Syria — with nearly 4,000 dying while crossing the Mediterranean.
In a surprise move, Davutoglu unveiled what his spokesman called a “new proposal” at a lunch with EU leaders in Brussels, forcing them to extend the lunchtime summit until dinner to discuss his demands.
The Turkish premier hinted as much as he arrived for the talks, saying: “Turkey is ready to work with EU. Turkey is ready to be member of EU as well.”
European Parliament head Martin Schulz confirmed Turkey’s demand for an extra €3 billion for 2018 on top of the 2016-17 money, saying it “will require additional (EU) budgetary procedures”.
One EU diplomat told AFP Turkey was proposing “a potential game-changer” where it will take back not only irregular economic migrants who have reached the Greek islands but also those from Syria deemed genuine refugees.
“In return, we have said for every Syrian they take back, we will resettle one Syrian” from camps in Turkey, where 2.7 million Syrian refugees are living, the diplomat added.
Turkey would also see visa-free travel brought forward to June if Ankara commits to immediately bringing into force the deal to readmit illegal migrants sent back from the Greek islands.
But the EU must still overcome its own bitter divisions over dealing with the migration crisis.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker insisted on Monday that a mention of closing the main Balkans route for migrants be dropped from a proposed final summit statement.
The West Balkans route is the main path for migrants to get from Greece to wealthy Germany and Scandinavia.
But Austria last month abruptly capped the number of asylum seekers it would accept, triggering a domino effect of border restrictions along the Balkans that has trapped tens of thousands of desperate migrants on the border between Greece and non-EU Macedonia.
“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,” Merkel said as she arrived in Brussels.
Merkel is facing pressure at home over her open-door policy toward refugees, which has been blamed by many countries for flooding the Balkans corridor in the first place.
Brussels sees curbing the flow of migrants as part of a plan to restore by the end of the year the full functioning of Europe’s cherished passport-free Schengen zone after the series of border closures.
Meanwhile Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras renewed calls Monday for fellow EU members to honor a deal to relocate thousands of refugees.
He recently said he would not allow his country to become a “warehouse of souls” where the rest of Europe dumps its refugees and migrants.
The bloc adopted a scheme last September to relocate 160,000 asylum seekers from Greece and Italy, but only 872 people have actually been moved, according to the latest EU figures.
The EU has also moved to set up a new crisis fund of €700 million, which will be used to help Greece cope with the migrants on its territory.