Leaders of the 28 EU member states are gathering in Brussels on Thursday for a summit that is expected to be dominated by the refugee crisis and the conflict in Syria, as the EU continues to struggle with a mass migration movement that has seen hundreds of thousands of refugees leave Syria for the European Union.
Having agreed on a controversial relocation programme for 120,000 refugees last month, leaders will explore ways of engaging with countries outside Europe including Lebanon, Jordan and particularly Turkey in a bid to stem the flow of refugees leaving conflict zones in the Middle East. Plans for a European border force and a reassessment of the "Dublin" convention which obliges refugees to seek asylum in the EU country where they first arrive, are also on the agenda, in a sign that Europe is toughening its approach to the crisis.
In a letter sent to EU leaders this week ahead of the meeting, EU Council President Donald Tusk, warned of the "threat of bigger waves [of refugees] flowing to Europe" next spring. The decisions taken by the EU on Thursday, he said, must be "sufficient to contain a new migratory wave," which could see millions of people attempting to enter the EU.
Speaking ahead of her arrival in Brussels, German chancellor Angela Merkel told the German parliament that Turkey must be part of a solution to the crisis.
“Most war refugees that come to Europe travel via Turkey. We won’t be able to order and stem the refugee movement without working together with Turkey,” she said.
President Recip Tayyip Erdogan visited Brussels last week and met with senior EU officials in meetings that were dominated by the migration crisis.
A delegation of EU commissioners had been scheduled to visit Ankara earlier this week but the visit was postponed following last Saturday’s bomb attack. They are hoping to secure political agreement in Turkey for a proposed action plan for EU-Turkish co-operation launched during Erdogan’s visit.
In a letter to heads of state ahead of Thursday’s summit, Tusk said that an agreement with Turkey “makes sense” if it effectively reduces the inflow of refugees, but we warned that concessions to Turkey will only be justified if this goal is achieved.
Turkey, which has been in accession negotiations with the EU since 2005, has been pressing the EU to liberalise visa laws for Turkish citizens and progress accession negotiations, in exchange for help on the refugee crisis. Merkel is due to visit Ankara this weekend.
EU leaders are also set to discuss a proposal for a European border guard force though this could simply involve the expansion of the existing border agency Frontex. As non-Shengen members, Britain and Ireland are not participants in Frontex.
EU leaders are set to clash over the escalating conflict in Syria amid divisions among member states about the role of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad in any future government.
Last week, Merkel indicated that the West needed to engage with Assad, a position that is shared by a number of EU countries including Poland. Britain and France who have been participating in US-led military air strikes against Islamic State for the past year have called for the removal of Assad,though British foreign minister Philip Hammond hinted that the timing and manner of his removal could be up for discussion.
Speaking ahead of the summit, one senior EU official from eastern Europe said that engagement with Assad is inevitable.
“We must see how much of Assad we can accept. We have to see how we can include the elements of the current set-up in Syria to find a realistic solution there.”
The intervention of Russia on the side of Assad in the Syrian conflict was condemned by EU foreign ministers earlier this week.