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EU leaders to meet with focus on Turkey

A possible deal between the EU and Turkey on the escalating migrant crisis is high on the agenda as leaders from the 28 member states of the European Union prepare to meet in Brussels on Thursday and Friday – the fourth one this year to focus on the refugee crisis. European leaders are to discuss measures to ease the region’s migration crisis with Turkey, the focus of their efforts. The leaders will be stepping up negotiations with Turkey which could be the key to helping Europe curb the heavy influx of Syrian refugees. The migrant crisis has severely stained the goodwill between the member states. The inconsistency in asylum policy across the EU has only led to political unrest.

European leaders are looking to strike a deal with Turkey which will include EU support for handling migrants, helping with the coast guard efforts to rescue floundering vessels, and combat people smuggling operations. If Turkey agrees, a plan drawn up by the EU would see the nation receiving up to €1bn ($1.5bn) to help host over two million refugees, which potentially could discourage Syrian refugees from taking the journey across the sea to reach Europe. Nearly 600,000 migrants have reached the EU by sea so far this year. To deal with the extra Syrian refugees Turkey could open six refugee camps for two million more individuals.

“An agreement with Turkey makes sense if it effectively reduces the influx of refugees,” European Council President Donald Tusk said ahead of the Brussels Summit, adding that concessions would only be justified when this goal is achieved.

The Turkish government has also called for the establishment of a safe-zone in northern Syria for the resettlement of refugees – a move opposed by both Syrian government and its ally, Russia. With shifting uncertainties in the Levant and the intervention of Russian military into Syria, the plan looks even more unlikely. Ankara is also pressing for easier visa access for Turkish citizens to EU countries within the so-called Schengen area.

"Turkey is calling on us to support the establishment of a safe zone in northern Syria, whereas Russia - increasingly engaged in Syria - is openly rejecting this idea. There is no doubt that our strengthened cooperation with the region is indispensable, but it will be a long march," Donald Tusk has warned ahead of the meeting.

The European Commission is bringing in extra funding - the total EU budget for the migration crisis is nearly €10bn ($11.5bn) for 2015-16. But the 28 member states’ governments are lagging behind, and they are far from fulfilling their aid commitments. Budgets for migration and asylum issues in many of these states hardest hit by the economic crisis have not kept up with growing demands and needs. In August 2015, the European Commission approved a €2.4bn ($2.6bn) emergency aid package, with €560 million ($616 million) for Italy and €473 million ($520 million) for Greece to subsidize their migrant rescue efforts for the next six years. However, many policymakers say that these funds still fall short of the growing magnitude of the crisis.

 “Even in the influx of refugees slows down during winter, we must be ready for spring and the threat of bigger waves flowing to Europe,” Tusk said in a letter to fellow EU leaders.

There is also a reluctance to give Turkey too much as it continues to pursue its domestic problems. Twin explosions outside Ankara’s main train station on Saturday struck at the very heart of Turkey, which killed almost 100 people. Now, shortly before parliamentary elections, the country’s democracy is on the verge of collapse.

Ahead of the summit, German Chancellor Angela Merkel stressed the need for a joint EU effort to tackle the crisis and said Turkey played a “key role”.

"Most war refugees that come to Europe travel via Turkey. We won't be able to order and stem the refugee movement without working together with Turkey," she told the German parliament on Thursday morning.

Main takeaway is the Joint Action Plan with Ankara aimed at stemming the flow of migrants reaching Europe via Turkey to ease the refugees’ plight, crack down on people-smuggling operations, and help Turkey repatriate migrants to countries deemed safe. In exchange, Ankara would get substantial financial support and a roadmap for lifting visa requirements for Turkish nationals. The leaders will also discuss the future of the Dublin system, the specific role of hotspots and steps towards the strengthening of external borders, including the EU border guard. However, convincing Turkey to stem the migration flow in exchange for visa-free travel and other EU incentives is still a distant project.

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