EU approves Turkey refugee fund after Italy row solved

The EU said on Wednesday it had agreed on how to finance a €3 billion ($3.3 billion) deal to aid Syrian refugees in Turkey, in exchange for Ankara's help stemming the flow of migrants, after resolving a dispute with Italy.

EU approves Turkey refugee fund after Italy row solved
The fund is intended to aid Syrian refugees in Turkey. Photo: Bulent Kilic/AFP

Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi had stalled on signing off on the deal because of questions about how the accord would work, but EU sources told AFP that Rome had given its approval on Wednesday.

Under the deal the European Commission, the EU executive, will contribute €1 billion to Turkey while the bloc's 28 member states will contribute two billion, the commission announced.

Germany is the country making the biggest contribution to the fund with €427 million, followed by Britain with €327 million and France with €309 million, EU sources said.

“I welcome the agreement by the Member States on the details of the refugee facility for Turkey,” European Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans said in a statement.

“The money we are putting on the table will directly benefit Syrian refugees in Turkey, helping to improve their access to education and healthcare in particular.

“I also welcome the measures already taken by the Turkish authorities to give Syrian refugees access to the labour market and to reduce the flows.”

Turkey – the main launching point for the one million refugees and migrants who arrived in Europe last year – has promised to cut the flow of people as part of the deal agreed with the EU at a summit in November.

Italian barbs

The deal comes four days after Renzi and German Chancellor Angela Merkel held talks to break the logjam on the deal with Turkey.

Italy had questioned how much of the money should come from the EU budget, and how much control the bloc will have over how Ankara spends the funds.

Renzi has also traded barbs with Brussels about claims that Italy has been slow to set up so-called “hotspot” centres for registering and taking photos and fingerprints of newly arrived migrants.

But in a diplomatic show of unity on Friday after Renzi repeatedly criticised “German dominance” in EU affairs, both leaders said that the migrant crisis can only be solved if the 28 members of the bloc work together.

Across Europe, debate has raged on how to handle the biggest wave of migrants and refugees since World War II, many of them fleeing the war in Syria.

In January alone 360 people drowned while making the risky crossing of the Mediterranean, while more than 3,700 died in 2015, according to the International Organization for Migration.

Greece, where most of the refugees and migrants arrive, is under pressure from Brussels to improve its control of the EU's external borders, although Athens says there is little more it can do.

Italy and Greece were the main beneficiaries of an EU deal last year to redistribute 160,000 refugees around the bloc and ease the burden of frontline states, but only just over 400 have so far been relocated.


How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area

European countries agreed on Thursday to push towards a long-stalled reform of the bloc's migration system, urging tighter control of external borders and better burden-sharing when it comes to asylum-seekers.

How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area
European interior ministers met in the northern French city of tourcoing, where president Emmanuel Macron gave a speech. Photo: Yoat Valat/AFP

The EU home affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson, speaking after a meeting of European interior ministers, said she welcomed what she saw as new momentum on the issue.

In a reflection of the deep-rooted divisions on the issue, France’s Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin – whose country holds the rotating EU presidency – said the process would be “gradual”, and welcomed what he said was unanimous backing.

EU countries backed a proposal from French President Emmanuel Macron to create a council guiding policy in the Schengen area, the passport-free zone used by most EU countries and some affiliated nations such as Switzerland and Norway.

Schengen council

Speaking before the meeting, Macron said the “Schengen Council” would evaluate how the area was working but would also take joint decisions and facilitate coordination in times of crisis.

“This council can become the face of a strong, protective Europe that is comfortable with controlling its borders and therefore its destiny,” he said.

The first meeting is scheduled to take place on March 3rd in Brussels.

A statement released after the meeting said: “On this occasion, they will establish a set of indicators allowing for real time evaluation of the situation at our borders, and, with an aim to be able to respond to any difficulty, will continue their discussions on implementing new tools for solidarity at the external borders.”

Step by step

The statement also confirmed EU countries agreed to take a step-by-step approach on plans for reforming the EU’s asylum rules.

“The ministers also discussed the issues of asylum and immigration,” it read.

“They expressed their support for the phased approach, step by step, put forward by the French Presidency to make headway on these complex negotiations.

“On this basis, the Council will work over the coming weeks to define a first step of the reform of the European immigration and asylum system, which will fully respect the balance between the requirements of responsibility and solidarity.”

A planned overhaul of EU migration policy has so far foundered on the refusal of countries such as the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia to accept a sharing out of asylum-seekers across the bloc.

That forces countries on the EU’s outer southern rim – Italy, Greece, Malta and Spain – to take responsibility for handling irregular migrants, many of whom are intent on making their way to Europe’s wealthier northern nations.

France is pushing for member states to commit to reinforcing the EU’s external borders by recording the details of every foreign arrival and improving vetting procedures.

It also wants recalcitrant EU countries to financially help out the ones on the frontline of migration flows if they do not take in asylum-seekers themselves.

Johansson was critical of the fact that, last year, “45,000 irregular arrivals” were not entered into the common Eurodac database containing the fingerprints of migrants and asylum-seekers.

Earlier, German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser suggested her country, France and others could form a “coalition of the willing” to take in asylum-seekers even if no bloc-wide agreement was struck to share them across member states.

She noted that Macron spoke of a dozen countries in that grouping, but added that was probably “very optimistic”.

Luxembourg’s foreign minister, Jean Asselborn, hailed what he said was “a less negative atmosphere” in Thursday’s meeting compared to previous talks.

But he cautioned that “we cannot let a few countries do their EU duty… while others look away”.

France is now working on reconciling positions with the aim of presenting propositions at a March 3rd meeting on European affairs.