Turkey demands threaten EU migrant deal

Lachlan Carmichael, Danny Kemp
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Migrants and refugees sit in an overcrowded tent on March 7, 2016 after waiting overnight at the Greek-Macedonian border

Migrants and refugees sit in an overcrowded tent on March 7, 2016 after waiting overnight at the Greek-Macedonian border (AFP Photo/Louisa Gouliamaki)

Brussels (AFP) - Turkey unexpectedly ratcheted up its demands for helping the EU with the migrant crisis at a high-stakes summit on Monday, leaving European leaders unsure if they were willing to pay the price for a deal.

Ankara sought an extra three billion euros ($3.3 billion) in aid, plus a refugee swap under which the EU would resettle one Syrian refugee from Turkey in exchange for every Syrian refugee that Turkey takes back from the overstretched Greek islands.

Under the last-minute proposals tabled by Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, the bloc would also bring forward visa-free travel for Turks to June, and speed up the country's long-stalled EU membership bid.

The costs of a deal to secure Turkey's help in dealing with Europe's biggest migration crisis since World War II are rising, but the EU has little choice as Turkey is the main launching point for migrants crossing the Aegean Sea to Greece.

The confused response in Brussels to the Turkish demands reflected deep divisions over a crisis that has now dragged on for more than a year with no sign of easing.

Hungary's hardline anti-migration Prime Minister Viktor Orban "has vetoed (the) EU-Turkey plan to relocate asylum seekers directly from Turkey", his spokesman tweeted.

Denmark's Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen meanwhile said there would be "probably nothing today, though we are getting closer."

Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi was threatening to veto any deal unless the final statement carried a reference to Turkey's recent crackdown on the main newspaper opposed to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

But as talks continued into the night, European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker's chief of staff Martin Selmayr held out hope, saying a deal was "almost there".

- Difficult partner -

Turkey has proved a difficult partner for the EU despite the fact that the two signed a deal in November under which Ankara agreed to stem the flow of migrants in exchange for an initial three billion euros in aid.

More than one million refugees and other migrants have arrived in Europe since the start of 2015, most of them coming from Turkey over the Aegean Sea to the Greek islands.

Erdogan -- who has previously threatened to "flood" the EU with migrants -- on Monday criticised the EU for a four-month delay in disbursing the funds from the November deal.

But Davutoglu, whose country is hosting 2.7 million Syrian refugees, took a softer tone during his talks with the EU leaders.

"With this new proposal our objective is to rescue the lives of the refugees, to discourage those who want to misuse and exploit the desperate situation of the refugees, meaning human smugglers, and to have a new era in EU Turkey relations," he said.

But the "explosive" Turkish demands left the summit in disarray, European sources said.

"Everyone was very surprised by this Turkish proposition, which we are not sure came from the Turks," one source told AFP, suggesting it may have been drafted with help from some European countries.

"The text was quickly done -- I don't know how anyone could have imagined how it would fly. It poses huge legal and logistical questions."

- Divided Europe -

Despite efforts by EU president Donald Tusk to find consensus last week on a tour to Greece, the Balkans and Turkey, the EU was still struggling with other divisions at the summit.

A row broke out over plans to include in the summit's conclusions a mention of the closure of the main migrant route through the Western Balkans -- the path from Greece to wealthy Germany and Scandinavia in the north.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel -- facing pressure at home and abroad over her open-door asylum policy -- and Juncker both opposed it for fear that it would encourage further unilateral border closures by EU states.

They fear a repeat of when Austria last month abruptly capped the number of asylum seekers it would accept, triggering a domino effect of border restrictions along the Balkans that has trapped tens of thousands of desperate migrants on the border between Greece and non-EU Macedonia.

Brussels wants to end such border closures and restore the Schengen passport-free travel area to full functioning by the end of the year.

Meanwhile, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras renewed calls Monday for fellow EU members to honour a deal to relocate thousands of refugees from Greece and Italy.

The EU plans to set up a new crisis fund of 700 million euros which will be used to help Greece cope with the migrants on its territory.