Turkey and the EU have reached a draft deal that European leaders hope will stop the flow of refugees to the continent, sources at talks in Brussels told Al Jazeera.
“We’re hearing from sources that have been attending the EU meetings that a major breakthrough has been reached,” Al Jazeera’s Neave Barker reported from the talks in the Belgian capital.
“Turkey has accepted the deal put forward by the EU 28 after three rounds of bilateral and trilateral meetings between the Turkish prime minister and the EU council president.”
Officials told Al Jazeera that the deal, once officially confirmed, would come into force at midnight on Sunday.
“That means that refugees, migrants, asylum seekers who are arriving in Greece, on the islands or the mainland … will find themselves subject to processing and then, in due course, they will be sent back to Turkey,” Barker said.
The Finnish prime minister, Juha Sipila, tweeted that the deal had been approved. The Czech prime minister also used Twitter to annouce that an agreement had been reached.
The details were now awaiting final approval from Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, EU sources said.
Leaders of the 28-member bloc had agreed on Thursday on a common plan under which Turkey would be given financial and political concessions in return for taking back all refugees who reached Greek islands off its coast.
Speaking from Brussels before the meeting, Davutoglu had said the refugee emergency was not something to be bargained over as he attended an early meeting with senior EU officials.
“We are working here in Brussels for humanitarian issues. For us, for Turkey, the humanitarian issue is not a bargaining issue, but an issue of value,” Davutoglu told reporters.
“Of course the EU and Turkey have the same goal, the same objective, to help Syrian refugees especially,” he added. “This is our purpose. I am sure, I hope we will be achieving our goal.”
A senior Turkish official told the Reuters news agency that Davutoglu would press the EU to open up new areas of negotiation on its long-stalled bid to join the bloc, despite a veto threat by Cyprus.
“We’re on the right track but we’re not there yet,” French President Francois Hollande told reporters after the first day of talks in Brussels. “I can’t guarantee you a happy ending.”
Thursday’s EU discussions revealed considerable doubts among the Europeans themselves over whether a deal could be made either legal in international law, or workable.
Over dinner, leaders gave EU negotiators a mandate to conclude an accord with Turkey by which it would take back all refugees who reached Greek islands off its coast. In return, the EU would take in Syrian refugees direct from Turkey, increase aid for Syrians there, speed up Ankara’s EU membership process and a scheme to let Turks visit Europe without visas.
Much of the debate, Merkel said, had focused on ensuring that a plan that has outraged human rights agencies could ensure that those returned to Turkey, a country with a patchy and worsening record on the matter, would have rights to asylum protected.
“An agreement with Turkey cannot be a blank cheque,” Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel warned, echoing many colleagues who face complaints that Europe is selling out to anti-refugees nationalists at home by outsourcing its problems to the Turks.
‘Stop the deal’
Outside the summit, rights group Amnesty International had placed a large screen in the middle of Brussels’ European quarter proclaiming “Don’t trade refugees. Stop the deal”.
A major sticking point in the negotiations was Turkey’s four-decade-old dispute with EU member Cyprus, whose President Nicos Anastasiades insisted there could be no opening of new “chapters” in Turkey’s EU membership talks until Ankara allows Cypriot traffic to its sea and airports – a result of a refusal to recognise the Cypriot state.
After EU leaders told Tusk where they could give ground and where they had “red lines”, Anastasiades said he was ready to veto a deal if necessary.
There is anger in Nicosia at Merkel for appearing to make Davutoglu an offer last week without having consulted Cyprus at a time when talks on reunification with the Turkish-backed north of the island are at a delicately hopeful stage.
Tusk, a former Polish prime minister, made it clear that Cypriot interests must be respected.
Within a year, more than a million people have arrived in Europe fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East and beyond.[Source: Agencies]