By Alastair Macdonald
The European Union is far from satisfied yet with the results of Turkish efforts to hold back migrants sailing to Greek islands and will discuss the problem in Ankara on Monday, a senior EU official said.
Frans Timmermans, the deputy head of the executive European Commission, told a news conference on Thursday that data showed arrivals in Greece in recent weeks had shown little change since the EU pledged cash and other concessions to Turkey on Nov. 29 in return for Turkish help in curbing irregular immigration.
“Over the last couple of weeks, the figures have remained relatively high, so there is still a lot of work to do there,” Timmermans said in Amsterdam, noting that he would travel to Turkey for talks on Monday to address a crisis that has divided EU governments and bolstered anti-EU nationalists.
“Our cooperation with Turkish authorities is positive,” Timmermans said. “We will continue discussing ways of improving the effectiveness of their operations.
“We have seen the first results which are encouraging but we are a long way from being satisfied.”
U.N. data shows that last week a daily average of 3,005 people, most of them saying they were fleeing war and instability in Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan, arrived in EU member Greece after risking drowning on the short crossing from Turkey.
That compared to 2,849 in the last week of November and daily averages between 3,000 and 3,600 in the intervening weeks.
Germany, which has taken in the bulk of more than a million people who sought asylum in the EU last year, says it has seen little decline in arrivals. Some officials put a fall from summer peaks of over 10,000 a day down to weather.
Turkey, which under President Tayyip Erdogan has a fraught relationship with its European neighbours, says it is doing what it can to contain the movement and curb criminal smuggling gangs while accommodating more than 2 million Syrian refugees.
EU governments pledged 3 billion euros ($3.3 billion) to help Turkey improve conditions for Syrians and so dissuade them from heading for Europe and have revived talks with Ankara on its negotiations to join the bloc. The EU also pledged easier travel visas for Turks if migrant numbers drop.
The migration crisis has opened up deep divisions between European states and the EU has set itself a goal of sharply reducing the influx this year.
At the same news conference, held to mark the start of his government’s six months as rotating chair of EU meetings, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said he was committed to seeing through a range of measures aimed at cutting numbers of arrivals “very considerably”. He put no figure on that goal, however.
Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said he was “very confident” that Rutte’s government would steer through by June an agreement to set up a common European Border and Coast Guard that aims to bolster controls, notably in Greece and Italy.
Timmermans said the numbers being taken in by Europe would be reduced by measures to speed procedures to determine those who do not qualify for refugee states and send them home.
Following the reintroduction of some frontier controls this week by Sweden and Denmark, the latest obstacles in the Schengen open borders area caused by the migration crisis, Juncker said better controls on Europe’s external frontiers were imperative:
“We have to save Schengen,” he told the news conference. “We cannot go on with this process where day after day another member state is reintroducing border controls.”