BRUSSELS – European Union leaders sought to seal a deal with Turkey’s prime minister on easing the bloc’s migration crisis Friday after agreeing on a common position at a late-night summit.
EU president Donald Tusk was to present Ahmet Davutoglu with the proposals, under which Turkey would take all migrants and refugees coming to Greece, before a meeting of all 28 leaders.
Europe is counting on a deal to curb an unprecedented wave of 1.2 million migrants since the start of 2015, fueled by the war in Syria, but Turkey is expected to exact a heavy price for its consent.
Despite concerns in many EU states about Ankara’s rights record, it has demanded an acceleration of its long-stalled bid for EU membership, billions of euros in extra aid and visa-free travel.
Critics have also raised concerns that the deal could violate international laws that forbid the mass deportation of refugees.
The migrant crisis has left Europe increasingly divided, with fears that its Schengen passport-free zone could collapse as states reintroduce border controls and concerns over the rise of populist parties on anti-immigration sentiment.
But some European leaders voiced worries that the deal — under which the EU would take in one Syrian refugee from Turkish soil in exchange for every Syrian taken back by Turkey from Greece — would be illegal.
The aim of the “one-for-one” deal is to encourage Syrians to apply for asylum in the EU while they are still on Turkish soil, instead of taking dangerous smugglers’ boats across the Aegean Sea.
Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite said the plan was “very complicated, will be very difficult to implement and is on the edge of international law.”
Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel evoked concerns over Turkey’s rights record and its conflict with Kurdish separatists, adding: “I can’t accept negotiations which sometimes look like they are a form of blackmail.”
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the deal was a “good opportunity to stop the business of human traffickers.”
Merkel however insisted on “preconditions” and clear plans to deal with the logistics of processing thousands of asylum seekers on the Greek islands and sending them back to Turkey.
A senior EU official described the proposal Tusk would present to Davutoglu as a “common position” that took into consideration “everyone’s red lines” for the negotiations.
Late on Thursday, Tusk presented changes to the deal to address some of the concerns — including the involvement of UNHCR in any deportations and that women and children should form the bulk of those taken under the scheme — steering it towards a consensus.
Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said as he boarded a plane in Ankara that the proposed deal was “clear and honest” but added: “Turkey will never become an open prison for migrants.”
He was due to meet Tusk, European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte before EU leaders meet again for final consultations, EU officials said.
One major hurdle that appeared to have been overcome was opposition from Cyprus, rooted in long-standing tensions with Turkey over Ankara’s refusal to recognise its government on the divided island.
Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades indicated he could be ready to “compromise” on his objections to the EU, opening new “chapters” in Turkey’s accession process, after earlier threatening to block the entire deal.
The deal also envisages major aid for Greece, where tens of thousands of refugees are trapped in dire conditions after Balkan countries shut their borders to stop them heading north to richer Germany and Scandinavia.
Meanwhile, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Friday the European Union must be ready to start returning migrants from Greece to Turkey rapidly to avoid a “pull factor” before the new system takes effect, although EU leaders had set no start date.
She said negotiations with Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu would not be easy but that all EU countries wanted a deal.
“We did not set a date, but Turkey’s clear understanding is that within a few days of returns starting, the one-for-one resettlement (of Syrian refugees from Turkey to Europe) should begin,” Merkel told a news conference.