December 17, 2015 / 9:13 PM / 2 years ago

Merkel optimistic Turkey will cut migrant flows to Europe

Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel arrives at a European Union leaders summit in Brussels December 17, 2015. REUTERS/Yves Herman

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - German Chancellor Angela Merkel expressed confidence after talks with Turkey’s prime minister on Thursday that Ankara would do its part to bring about a sharp reduction in the number of illegal migrants entering the European Union.

Describing the talks with Ahmet Davutoglu and nine other EU leaders ahead of a broader summit of the bloc as positive, Merkel also said discussions would continue on a resettlement scheme under which EU countries could choose to take on fixed numbers of Syrian refugees from Turkey.

“This meeting was very good,” Merkel said, noting that ongoing talks with Turkey would focus on how to “strongly and significantly reduce” illegal migration as well as a mechanism for legal migration through voluntary quotas.

“Not everyone needs to take part in this process, but it isn’t a closed shop either. Every country that wants to participate is welcome,” she said.

Germany, by far the top destination for asylum seekers in Europe, has been the driving force behind the voluntary resettlement idea, saying it would help Turkey, as well as EU member states, to have more control over who gets to Europe.

Under pressure at home, Merkel is counting on Ankara to stem the flow of hundreds of thousands of Syrians from Turkey into Greece and onward to Germany and other EU countries.

The meeting at the Austrian embassy in Brussels took place as a report from Luxembourg, in its capacity as president of EU ministerial councils, said there was little evidence Turkey had managed to reduce departures of migrants for Greek islands in the two weeks since it signed an “action plan” with the EU to do so.

Despite that, the deputy head of the European Commission, Frans Timmermans, who has led the EU executive’s negotiations with Turkey and attended the “mini-summit”, expressed hope that the deal would work.

EU officials said other data showing an increase in numbers of migrants being intercepted on land in Turkey as they headed for the coast appeared to indicate Ankara was making a new effort.

“For us it is important to continue work with Turkey on the implementation of the action plan,” Timmermans said. “I‘m strongly encouraged to do that because of the positive and proactive attitude of Prime Minister Davutoglu.”

Merkel said the European Commission would present a report on the resettlement plan at the next summit in February.

Other officials who attended the meeting with Davutoglu said that before any quotas were agreed, Turkey must show it was serious about cracking down on illegal migration through its territory. Some governments said that until irregular flows stop, they would be unlikely to take people in from Turkey.

BORDER GUARD

The resettlement scheme is linked to a wider deal with Turkey under which Ankara has pledged to prevent migrants leaving for Greece in return for 3 billion euros ($3.25 billion)from the bloc, accelerated visa-free travel for Turks to the EU and reviving long stalled membership talks.

At the full EU summit later in the day, leaders discussed the migration crisis for three hours, delivering a broad welcome to proposals from the Commission this week to create a European Border and Coast Guard that can intervene in crises to protect the common frontier of the Schengen zone.

While several criticised as provocative and unacceptable an element in the executive’s draft that would allow for EU forces to shore up a member state’s frontier without being invited, officials said all backed the new force in principle and would support rapid legislation to set it up next year.

European Council President Donald Tusk, chairing the summit, said the leaders had adopted final conclusions on migration policy, but the agreed wording was not immediately made public.

Diplomats said Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi voiced discontent with criticism from Brussels over Rome’s difficulties in taking fingerprints from migrants who refuse to cooperate.

He also secured renewed assurances that contributions to the EU fund for refugees in Turkey would not count against Italy when its budget deficit was reviewed by euro zone supervisors.

Additional reporting by Francesco Guarascio; Writing by Noah Barkin; Editing by Paul Taylor

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