EU leaders worked into the early hours to patch together a crucial consensus to present to Ankara on Friday morning, which they desperately need to curb the flow of migrants into Greece and the rest of Europe.
The Cyprus News Agency reported just before 1am that diplomatic sources had told journalists in Brussels that a deal had been reached that was very close to the initial draft, and which satisfied Cyprus. “Now it’s up to Turkey to accept it,” the sources reportedly said.
A Financial Times correspondent in Brussels tweeted an identical report, and Reuters quoted Luxembourg’s Prime Minister Xavier Bettel saying the consensus agreement would be offered to Turkey. Reuters also quoted President Nicos Anastasiades saying he would veto the deal on Friday if he had to.
The draft is expected to be presented to Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu by European Council President Donald Tusk early on Friday.
Among the chief obstacles to reaching a deal with Turkey was the threat of a veto by Cyprus to Turkey’s demand that five chapters in its stalled EU accession process be opened.
A draft on Wednesday night had watered down an earlier promise to Davutoglu by German Chancellor Angela Merkel – under fire at home over the migrant influx – to open the chapters in return for Ankara’s help as part of an overall migrant deal. Merkel’s backroom deal with Davutoglu over a week ago, irritated other EU leaders whose new draft, which may not be acceptable to Turkey, said the EU would merely “prepare for the decision” on the opening of new chapters.
EU leaders were also having difficulties with the visa-free travel for Turks to Europe by June, to which the bloc has attached 72 conditions, 20 of which are still pending.
Before leaving for Brussels on Thursday night Davutoglu said he saw some difficulties within the bloc in fulfilling Ankara’s terms but hoped for positive results. However he said he would not accept any deal which turned Turkey into an “open prison” for migrants. His Minister for Europe Volkan Bozkir said earlier some EU countries were trying to blackmail Ankara and it was unacceptable that “on the whim of one country”, referring to Cyprus, the whole process of reaching a deal on was being blocked.
“If it’s blackmail to submit a proposal to prevent illegal immigration that is reaching six thousand a day, it means that this issue has not been in any way understood,” Bozkir said.
Anastasiades said on Thursday he hoped for a compromise. But in statements made to media at various points throughout the day, he made it clear he was prepared to use Cyprus’ veto.
Cyprus was not the obstacle, he said, reiterating Nicosia’s stance that it was up to Turkey to fulfill its obligations to the Republic by opening its ports and airports before Nicosia could consent to stalled chapters. However on his way into the summit he said there might yet be an alternative “which would give us a way out.”
The Cyprus News Agency cited sources saying the plan was to draft wording that would meet Cyprus’ expectations while giving Ankara the feeling it had gained movement in the opening of the chapters.
Cyprus had not been put under any sort of pressure by its EU partners, Anastasiades said, adding that there was much more to the deal than the five chapters Turkey wanted opened.
“I’m sure our [EU] partners will find a way,” said Anastasiades who had held various meetings with EU leaders including Merkel, Britain’s David Cameron and Holland’s Mark Rutte, and European Parliament President Martin Schulz. According to state radio CyBC, Merkel told Anastasiades she understood Cyprus’ position.
According to the Wall Street Journal on Thursday, several senior EU diplomats said there was broad recognition that Brussels shouldn’t pressure Anastasiades right now, not least because of the political risks he has taken in the peace process and because of upcoming parliamentary elections in May.
On his way to the summit, Tusk said he was “more cautious than optimistic”. Any deal “must be acceptable to all 28 member states, no matter whether big or small”, he said, a reference to Cyprus’s reservations. Tusk had been in Nicosia on Tuesday for talks with Anastasiades, after which he went on to Ankara but failed to fully resolve the issues ahead of the summit.
Tusk forecast difficult talks, saying any deal must fully comply with European and international law, which has been challenged by UN agencies and rights groups, and must effectively help solve the migration crisis.
Merkel said she thought it possible to overcome fellow leaders’ lingering concerns over the legality and practicalities of deporting all new migrants back to Turkey . “These will be complicated negotiations but the basic direction is clear,” she said, adding that she shared Tusk’s “cautious optimism, with the emphasis on cautious”.
According to Reuters, Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite said the package was “very much on the edge of international law” and, even if agreed, appeared over-complicated and hard to implement.
One senior EU official said that a lack of legal clarity in Turkey on the status of refugees from countries other than Syria – notably large numbers of Iraqis and Afghans – was emerging as a serious sticking point to Greece sending such people back.
Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, facing a build-up of more than 40,000 refugees stranded in Greece by recent border closures in the Balkans, said his economically struggling country needed more help to care for migrants. EU officials said Greece also needed time to set up legal and administrative structures to carry out the deportations.
To satisfy EU and international law, Greece and Turkey will have to modify domestic legislation so that Turkey is regarded as protecting asylum seekers in line with the Geneva Convention, even though Ankara limits its formal commitments to that treaty.
All migrants who reach Greece would have a right to put their case for asylum and to appeal against deportation.
Under the plan, Turkey would take back all those, including Syrian refugees, who cross to Greek islands. The EU would also double an agreed €3 billion fund to help refugees in Turkey.
The draft, seen by Reuters, says the aim is “to break the business model of the (people) smugglers” and to offer migrants an alternative to putting their lives at risk. It stresses the return is “a temporary and extraordinary measure which is necessary to end the human suffering and restore public order”.
Belgium’s prime minister, Charles Michel, insisted no deal was better than a bad deal. “Turkey is asking a lot and I don’t accept a negotiation that at times represents a form of blackmail.”