EU to accelerate Turkey accession talks in refugee crisis plan

Summit in Brussels discusses joint bid with Ankara to contain flow of migrants to Europe

An Taoiseach Enda Kenny addresses the media at a meeting of EU leaders in Brussels. Video: EU Commission


EU leaders have agreed to ease visa restrictions for Turkish citizens and accelerate EU’s accession negotiations as part of a joint plan with Ankara agreed overnight in Brussels to tackle the refugee crisis.

A summit of European Union leaders gave political backing to a new “action plan” that will see Turkey increase co-operation with the EU on border control as Europe seeks to contain the numbers of migrants entering the EU.

European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker presented a proposal last night which had been negotiated by Commission vice-president Frans Timmermans the previous day in Ankara.

A request by Turkey for up to €3 billion in funding to help the country deal with the migration crisis was discussed by EU heads of state, with German chancellor Angela Merkel confirming it would be considered by the EU. “Turkey after all has already spent €7 billion on refugees and has received less than €1 billion,” Ms Merkel told reporters after the summit. “In the future we have to be stronger on burden sharing.”

Earlier, before her departure for Brussels, she told the German parliament that Turkey must be part of a solution to the migration problem.

“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. The German chancellor will visit Ankara on Sunday, less than two weeks before the country goes to the polls at a highly sensitive political time.

A report from the EU’s border agency Frontex this week found that 710,000 migrants crossed into the European Union in the first nine months of the year. This compares with 282,000 for the whole of 2014, with most refugees entering through the Greek islands in the Aegean sea.

Arriving in Brussels, Taoiseach Enda Kenny said in some instances undocumented people were not being checked when they enter the EU. “I think it’s fair to say that there’s a real problem here in the sense of people moving through countries without being checked,” he said.

He said Ireland supported the opening of some pre-accession chapters for Turkey, adding that Ireland “does not have a problem” with visa liberalisation for Turkey.

“There are very significant numbers of people, refugees in Turkey. And obviously the Commission and Council are responding here in terms of assistance and the opening up of some of the pre-accession chapters for discussion with Turkey. Obviously this has implications for some other countries and that will be a source of discussion this evening,” he said.

‘More effective’

He also called for a review of the Dublin convention, which obliges refugees to seek asylum in the EU country where they first arrive.

“There has been talk in the last Council meeting of the Dublin accord. That’s the law... but if it’s ineffective and it needs to be strengthened, then that should be done also. I would be recommending that the Council would look at the question of how you would make that more effective in everybody’s interest,” he said.

Turkey has been locked in negotiations about accession to the EU for close to a decade, amid scepticism from a number of member states about the prospect of EU membership for Turkey and opposition from countries such as Greece and Cyprus.

Under the deal agreed last night, the EU will consider an earlier introduction of visa liberalisation for Turkey, though any decision is likely to only apply to members of the Schengen area. Speaking after the summit, European Council president Donald Tusk gave a “cautious welcome” to the deal.

Turkey, which is facing elections on November 1st, is becoming increasingly embroiled in the Syrian conflict, following the incursion of Russian military jets in Turkish airspace earlier this month. Authorities are still investigating a terrorist attack in Ankara on Saturday which left 97 people dead, with Turkey suspecting Islamic State or Kurdish separatists of instigating the attacks.

Separately, the leaders of Britain, France and Germany met on the sidelines of yesterday’s summit in a bid to seek a common approach to the war in Syria ahead of next month’s G20 summit in Turkey.

British prime minister David Cameron, Ms Merkel and French president Francois Hollande held discussions privately on the Syrian conflict though sources said it was too early to tell if they three would launch a common initiative. Turkey currently holds the rotating presidency of the G20.

The EU is increasingly divided on how best to deal with the Syrian conflict, in particular the possible role for Syrian president Bashar al-Assad in any future government. Germany has suggested in the last few weeks that some form of engagement with the Syrian president is necessary, with Britain, and in particular France opposed. Both countries have been involved in US-led air strikes against Islamic State for the past year.

Speaking ahead of the summit, Mr Tusk warned that the situation in Syria was deteriorating, which may lead to “a new massive exodus of refugees”.

“It is our obligation to be prepared for all possible scenarios. We must ask ourselves if the decisions we are going to take are sufficient to contain a new migratory wave,” he said.

Yesterday, troops loyal to Mr Assad continued their attempt to reclaim land won by rebel groups, bombing rebel-held towns north of Homs, backed by Russian military jets. Russia began bombing campaigns in Syria on September 30th, claiming that it is targeting Islamic State fighters, but the US and other western powers have queried Moscow’s motivation.