Merkel scores victory on EU migrant plan, if implemented
At the EU-Turkey summit on Monday (7 March), the EU needed a new turn in events on migration, which were producing closed borders and a humanitarian crisis in Greece.
The practice of waving through people on the Western Balkan route to Central Europe was to be declared over and down with.
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EU leaders were to push Turkey to step up its efforts to stem the flow of people towards Europe and Greece was to become a temporary holding camp for migrants and refugees, on an EU humanitarian lifeline.
But German chancellor Angela Merkel also needed a new turn in her political fortunes.
Merkel, under domestic pressure for her increasingly unpopular “welcome” policy on refugees, needed something concrete to show voters before next Sunday's election in three of Germany’s 16 regions - Saxony-Anhalt, Rhineland-Palatinate and Baden-Wuerttemberg.
That is why a surprise Turkish proposal arrived on the EU leaders' table on Monday.
The plan, which Merkel insisted in her press conference was “entirely” a Turkish proposal, was in fact discussed on Sunday night by Turkish prime minister Ahmet Davotoglu, Merkel and Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte, whose country holds the EU rotating presidency.
According to the new plan, Turkey would take back migrants, including Syrians, in order to relieve Greek islands.
In exchange, Turkey would get more money from the EU, refugee relocations to the EU, quicker liberalisation of its EU visa regime and further acceleration of its EU accession talks.
On Monday morning, before the summit, Merkel held a handful of bilateral meetings to outline to some fellow leaders what was in the proposal.
That is how French president Francois Hollande learned about the plan.
But, according to sources, most leaders were surprised to discover a plan that appeared to have come out of nowhere when they arrived at the summit.
After Davutoglu presented the plan over lunch, Merkel warned she would not leave Brussels until she got a deal. She got halfway there.
"If it was a hostage taking, it failed," an EU diplomat said.
In the end, after 12 hours of discussion, the German chancellor got political endorsement of a deal that she and other leaders said would be "a breakthrough" if it’s implemented.
“This is significant but only if it’s fully implemented,” British PM David Cameron said.
The summit decisions “if implemented … could be a big step toward solving the refugee problem in Europe,” Polish PM Beata Szydlo said.
Details of the plan will be discussed again at the next EU summit on 17 and 18 March.
“We need to show we have the tools in hand to reduce tangibly the number of refugees arriving in Germany,” Merkel told journalists in the small hours of Tuesday.
But other leaders around the table weren’t impressed by her document, which seemed to “undermine” the work of EU Council president Donald Tusk, who had returned from a tour of the Balkan route capitals and Turkey before the weekend.
'I won't sign off'
“It’s strange to come up with a text that has never been discussed before the summit. It’s a bit naiive to think it will work,” an EU source said.
Some leaders cited procedural obstacles, like the need for a specific mandate from their national parliament, to avoid taking an immediate decision on the novel proposal.
Others were upset to be asked to agree to a paper that they had never seen before.
“I won't sign off something that has numbers and billions flying around,” one prime minister reportedly said.
A spokesman for Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orban said he vetoed the plan. But Merkel said his objection did not amount to a veto.
The German also said that the “Turkish” plan meant a “qualitative step forward” in tackling migrant smuggling and irregular migration.
“I welcomed the fact that they made this proposal at all. Better late than ever,” she said.
Many agree with her that a European solution to the migration crisis needs Turkey, even if it means looking the other way on its latest attack on press freedom.
“If we want to protect our external borders cooperation [with Turkey] is necessary,” Merkel said when asked about Turkish authorities’ seizure of the main opposition newspaper Zaman on Friday.
Her more hawkish approach to the crisis at the EU level seems to be paying dividends for her popularity at home.
One month after Merkel's approval fell to a four-year low, 54 percent of Germans are now satisfied or very satisfied with her government’s performance, according to the latest survey by ARD's DeutschlandTrend.
The 54 percent figure is up from her low of 46 percent, but still short of her 67 percent rating last July.
Insisting on a common European solution and on keeping internal EU borders open at least in name, Merkel also managed to cut a sentence from the draft summit concusions declaring that the Western Balkan migration route was "closed".
The harsh wording had been agreed on Sunday by EU ambassadors when they prepared the summit statement with no opposition from Germany.
The final text said "irregular flows of migrants along the Western Balkans route have now come to an end".
In Merkel’s own words "the situation along the Western Balkan route has come to a standstill, nobody has closed anything, but there has been a standstill with negative repercussions on Greece."