By Francesco Guarascio
BRUSSELS, Nov 29 (Reuters) – Leaders of the European Union and Turkey were set to sign an agreement on Sunday offering Ankara cash and closer ties in return for help in stemming the flow of migrants to Europe, draft conclusions of their summit showed.
Aware of a sense of desperation in Europe for a solution to a crisis that has called into question the future of its passport-free travel zone, Ankara has been driving a hard bargain.
Diplomats said the 28 EU governments had struggled through Saturday to agree on a final offer.
The draft deal seen by Reuters made clear the nature of the trade-off, involving Turkish help in handling the flow of migrants to the EU, expected to reach 1.5 million people this year alone, and the EU offering cash and restarting talks on EU accession.
“Both sides will … with immediate effect, step up their active cooperation on migrants … preventing travel to Turkey and the EU, ensuring … readmission provisions and swiftly returning migrants who are not in need of international protection to their countries of origin,” the draft said.
Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, meeting the 28 EU national leaders for three hours from 1500 GMT, said on arrival for the talks in Brussels that it was a “new beginning” for Turkey’s efforts to become an EU member, stalled for 10 years.
“Today is a historic day in our accession process to the EU,” Davutoglu told reporters. “I am grateful to all European leaders for this new beginning,” he said.
Summit chairman Donald Tusk, however, stressed that the meeting was primarily about stemming the flow of migrants.
“I have called this summit to decide in the first place what the EU and Turkey must do together to cope with the migration crisis. Our main goal is to stem the flow of migrants to Europe,” Tusk said.
The Europeans, none more so than German Chancellor Angela Merkel, are under pressure to manage the biggest influx of people since World War Two, the bulk of them to Germany. The crisis has helped populist opponents and set nations against each other, straining the open borders of the EU.
“We will agree on the EU Turkey action plan today,” Merkel said on arrival for the summit. “One main part of this EU-Turkey action plan will be how we can replace illegal migration by legal migration, how we can improve the situation of refugees within Turkey,” she said.
Measures the EU has taken in recent months have done little to control migrant movements. While winter weather may lower the numbers for a few months, it is also worsening the plight of tens of thousands stuck by closing borders in the Balkans.
Sunday’s summit, called just days ago as Brussels tried to clinch a deal offered over a month ago, has been complicated by Turkey’s downing of a Russian warplane on the Syrian border.
That has complicated European efforts to re-engage with Moscow, despite a continued frost over Ukraine, in order to try to advance a peace in Syria that could end the flight of refugees and contain Islamic State.
Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny said tension between Ankara and Moscow over the downing of the warplane were of “enormous concern” and the EU’s foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said the incident should not affect the prospect of finding a political deal on Syria.
The Islamist group’s attack on Paris two weeks ago has heightened public calls in the EU for more controls on people arriving from Syria.
CASH ON TABLE
Under the draft deal the EU is offering 3 billion euros ($3.2 billion) to improve the livelihood of the 2.2 million Syrians now living in Turkey so that they are less likely to board boats for nearby Greek islands.
The EU wants Turkish authorities to make that journey more difficult and to keep out more of the Afghans and other Asians who cross Turkey on their way to Europe. Ankara is also to take back people who reach Greece but fail to get political asylum.
“Both sides agree that the EU-Turkey readmission agreement will become fully applicable from June 2016,” the draft conclusions of the meeting said.
Turkey has pressed for more money, and the draft left the door open to adjust the amount later.
“The need for and nature of this funding will be reviewed in the light of the developing situation. As Turkey hosts more than 2.2 million Syrians and as it has spent $8 billion, the EU thus underlined the importance of burden-sharing within the framework of Turkey-EU cooperation,” the draft said.
In the draft, Turks are also promised visa-free travel in Europe if they fulfil commitments on migrant flows.
The draft talks of “completing the visa liberalisation process i.e. the lifting of visa requirements for Turkish citizens in the Schengen zone by October 2016 once the requirements of the Roadmap are met.”
EU leaders also pledge in the draft to “re-energise” talks on Turkey joining the EU. Diplomats said Turkey would see talks on economic cooperation open on Dec. 14.
(Additional reporting by Robin Emmott, Sabine Siebold, Gabriela Baczynska, Jan Strupczewski, Alastair Macdonald, Ercan Gurses; Editing by Hugh Lawson)