Thursday

21st Mar 2019

EU-Turkey talks: 'Happy conclusion' not guaranteed

  • Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte, whose country holds the rotating EU presidency, was tasked to negotiate a final deal with Turkish PM Ahmet Davutoglu. (Photo: Council of the European Union)

EU leaders on Thursday (17 March) reached a common position on a draft EU-Turkey plan to stop irregular migration to Europe and send back refugees to Turkey.

They will try on Friday to get the Turkish prime minister's agreement. It could be a tough sell, as compensations for Turkey's help are lower than what it had demanded.

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“Negotiations will be anything but easy,” German chancellor Angela Merkel told reporters after the meeting. French president Francois Hollande warned that he could not "guarantee a happy conclusion".

The two leaders, as well as Belgian and Swedish prime minister Charles Michel and Stefan Loefven, held separate press conferences. But contrary to EU summit customs, the presidents of the European Council and Commission, Donald Tusk and Jean-Claude Juncker, did not speak to journalists and no statement was published.

The details of the common position were not made public in order not to reveal the EU negotiating position, officials said.

Tusk, Juncker and Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte, whose country holds the rotating EU presidency, were given a mandate to negotiate a final deal with Turkish PM Ahmet Davutoglu.

"We did not validate a formal document," Michel said. "It was more clever to indicate the important points, and have a space for negotiation."

One-to-one

The plan, the main lines of which were agreed at an EU-Turkey summit on 7 March, and the discussions are divided in two parts.

On one hand, under a so-called "one-to-one" scheme, Turkey would take back all migrants, including Syrian refugees, arriving to Greece irregularly, while EU countries would resettle Syrian refugees directly from Turkey.

In exchange, Turkey would get an accelerated process for the lifting of visa requirements to travel to the EU, the opening of to five chapters in EU accession negotiations and an additional €3 billion to an already existing €3-billion fund for refugees in Turkey.

First, EU leaders decided that the one-to-one scheme would apply to a maximum of 72,000 people.

That number was decided using 18,000 places of a resettlement mechanism for people "in clear need of international protection" from outside the EU agreed last July, and 54,000 unattributed places to relocate asylum seekers from Greece and Italy to other EU countries.

To overcome opposition from countries like Hungary, the scheme will be voluntary. Participating countries will be able to subtract the number of refugees they will resettle from their national quota for relocation.

The one-to-one scheme, described by Merkel as a “good instrument to end the traffickers' business”, will be "temporary and extraordinary", according to the draft plan.

Implementation 'very quickly'

The main question will be how and when that plan, if agreed with Turkey, will be implemented.

Merkel said leaders did not agree on a specific date from which it would take effect but said it would have to be done "very quickly".

"We are not talking about weeks here," she said.

Much will depend on the state of readiness of the Greek authorities, who will have to make sure that all asylum claims are dealt with individually.

The individual treatment of migrants was an essential condition to make the deal compliant with EU and international laws, in particular the Geneva Convention on refugees. The draft deal was modified to speficy that condition.

To make the plan work, Greece will first have to change its legislation to recognise Turkey as a "safe third country" where refugees can be sent back in accordance with international law.

Greece, which did not want to assume alone the legal responsibility of the move, wanted this recognition to be at EU level. Its partners only gave it a guarantee that this would be done later, according to a top official from a member state.

Support for Greece

But the main challenge for Greece will be the capacity to examine all cases individually as well as the appeals from rejected asylum seekers.

The plan will necessitate a "huge logistical and operational work", Michel said, adding that Greece would need legal experts, interpreters and translators.

Several EU countries said they were ready to help with logistics, funds and personnel. An EU official told EUobserver that plans were being worked on to rapidly deploy support for Greece.

But "the Greeks will have to tell us when they are ready,” another EU official said.

If that crucial part of the implementation of the plan takes too long, it could create a “pull effect” for migrants trying to reach Europe before they risk being turned back, Merkel admitted.

She said that the EU and Turkey will assess the mechanism on a monthly basis to see whether the system works or not.

Once Greece is ready to process asylum claim individually and Turkey starts to take back migrants and refugees, the resettlement will start “a few days after”, Merkel said.

Visa liberalisation

The most difficult part of the talks between the EU and Turkey on Friday will be over Turkish demands in exchange for help.

On visa liberalisation, EU leaders agreed that although the objective remain to lift requirements by the end of June, Turkey would have to first meet all 72 benchmarks included in the roadmap agreed in 2013.

"Visa liberalisation means that certain standards of international law have to be incorporated in Turkish legislation," Merkel said.

On the second Turkish demand, for an additional €3 billion for refugees in Turkey, Merkel said that there was a "general willingness to put additional funds on the table".

But according to officials, the EU will only agree to accelerate the disbursement of the current €3 billion for concrete projects Turkey will have to present. Then it will try to gather the additional €3 billion. Sources said that some member states wanted the extra fund to come entirely from the EU budget and not from national contributions.

Accession chapters

The last issue, and maybe the most dangerous to the agreement, is the opening of new accession chapters for Turkey.

Ankara would like to see five chapters mentioned in the agreement, on energy, justice, fundamental rights and foreign and security policies. But Cyprus, which blocked these chapters after Turkey refused to apply the EU-Turkey customs union to Cyprus, said the question was a "vital issue".

The 28 "took care of not naming chapters for now," Hollande said.

A source told EUobserver that in the draft leaders also modified the paragraph on chapters, from "the EU, together with Turkey, will prepare for the decision" on opening new chapters" to "the EU will prepare for the decision".

These changes made in order to avoid a Cypriot veto on the deal could meet a Turkish red line, as Davutoglu last week linked the cooperation on the refugee crisis to progress in the accession process.

But Davutoglu "has gone too far" in the process with the EU since the first EU-Turkey summit last November "to step back now," a top EU official said.

A first indication of the Turkish PM mindset will be given Friday morning, when Tusk, Juncker and Rutte will present the EU proposal for a deal.

According to an Council official, the 28 leaders will reconvene at 1pm, either to endorse Davutoglu's reaction to the proposal or to rework it to overcome a Turkish blockage.

Discussion could last until late in the afternoon, officials said.

EU to offer less than Turkey expected

No new accession chapters to be opened and no cast-iron promise of extra money on top of an earlier €3 billion, according to draft summit conclusions seen by EUobserver.

EU casts legal spell on Turkey pact

Turkey will only have to demonstrate "equivalent" level of safeguards to the Refugee Convention in order for Greece to send people back.

EU and Turkey agree draft refugee plan

Under a draft deal that has yet to be endorsed by all EU and Turkish leaders, the return of migrants to Turkey will start next Monday. Turkey will not get the accession chapters and the additional money it demanded.

Smuggled migrants to leave Greece from Sunday onward

EU-Turkey accord to see rejected asylum applicants sent back to Turkey and an equal number of Syrian refugees to be resettled in the EU. Much will depend on Greece's capacity to deliver.

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