EU prime ministers met on 7 March at an extraordinary summit to discuss the migration crisis. This topic was largely left out of the agenda of the February European Council (the UK concerns were the key issue back then). In the meantime, a number of developments occurred on the ground. Actions by Austria, Macedonia and other Balkans states all but halted the inflow of migrants into central EU – although putting all the more pressure on Greece. Greece also made serious efforts and the registration hotspots were finally operational. Turkey and Greece also made a readmission deal, which also became operational. Last but not least, the NATO naval operation around Greek islands disrupted the smugglers´ business and limited the number of boats arriving to the EU. All of these developments had such an effect, that EU leaders were able to state in the summit´s conclusions that the Western Balkans migratory route was all but closed.
The key relationship with Turkey was also expected to be discussed. Turkey came with a new very promising plan – all irregular migrants attempting to get to Greece from Turkey were to be returned there, either directly by NATO vessels, or by Greek authorities. For each Syrian readmitted that way, the EU would take a Syrian living in a Turkish refugee camp (and relocate him/her internally). The whole operation would be financed by the EU. Moreover, Turkey asked for additional €3 bn (in 2016-2018) to house the refugees in Turkey. The EU leaders warmly welcomed the proposal, but many delegations were startled that it was a complete novelty on the agenda. In the words of an EU diplomat, it was not the summit everyone came for – the proposals changed substantially. The prime ministers therefore took time until the next ordinary European Council (17-18 March) to assess the proposal. Part of it is also quick adoption of visa-free travel for Turkish citizens to the EU and opening of new negotiation chapters on Turkish EU membership.
Meanwhile, the Council approved additional financial aid for Greece to cope with the migration crisis. However, since the Western Balkans route is now in practice closed, Greece´s neighbors fear that migrants would find new ways. Bulgaria and Albania are first in line and their leaders expressed concerns. Bulgarian Prime Minister called for the possible future deal with Turkey to apply also to migrants crossing to Bulgaria.
18th August 2017
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