ANKARA: Crisis talks on the Syrian refugee emergency began on Monday in Brussels between senior officials from the EU and Turkey, including Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
It followed Ankara’s announcement on Feb. 28 that it was opening its borders to allow refugees to cross into Europe.
Thousands of refugees gathered along Turkey’s border with Greece after Ankara’s announcement, and Greek police used tear gas and water cannon to control the crowds.
During the tense talks, Germany, which has criticized Turkey for “negotiating on the backs of the weakest,” said that a “coalition of the willing” among EU member states will take in 1,500 unaccompanied children from Greek refugee camps who are under the age of 14 or in need of urgent medical help.
Erdogan ordered the Turkish coast guard to prevent risky Aegean Sea crossings on Friday, but land crossings remain open.
As Syrians continue to flee rebel-held Idlib province amid assaults by Syrian regime forces, Ankara says it cannot take any more refugees as it already hosts four million. Emphasizing the need for burden-sharing, Turkey accuses the authorities in Brussels of falling short of their commitments on financial support to help care for refugees.
Following a meeting of European foreign ministers in Zagreb on Friday, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said member states are willing to offer additional financial support to Turkey beyond the 6 billion euros ($6.9 billion) promised in 2016, but added that “they cannot accept that migrants are being used as a source of pressure.”
Kadri Tastan, a Brussels-based senior fellow of US public policy think tank the German Marshall Fund, said: “This latest crisis shows once again that the EU acts only in emergency situations and it has no long-term strategy for such types of crises.
Turkey hosts more than 3.5 million Syrian refugees, and Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has demanded that Europe shoulder more of the burden of caring for them.
“Erdogan kept repeating that he was going to open the valve; Europeans thought it was just a blackmail. So the Europeans are reacting again in an emergency.”
Brussels expects Turkey to honor its side of the 2016 EU-Turkey deal by ensuring refugees remain within its borders rather than allowing them to freely cross into the EU.
Given the strength of feeling and the reaction in European nations to Ankara’s decision to open its border, Tastan said, the EU is obliged to cooperate with Ankara. This is surely not being done voluntarily, he added.
Erdogan met European Council President Charles Michel and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on Monday. The meetings were purely consultative, designed to de-escalate the crisis and open a dialogue.
“The heads of European institutions have no power to decide anything on this very controversial subject,” said Tastan.
“Decisions will be taken at the European Council and by the governments of the member states.”
He added that Germany and the Netherlands are likely to spearhead attempts to reach a new consensus among the divergent views within the EU bloc.
“In any case, visa travel for Turkish citizens and the modernization of the Custom Union will not be linked to the question of migrants by Europeans this time,” he said.
The EU is not expected to extend any significant assistance to Turkey’s ongoing efforts to create a safe zone inside Syria. Borrell recently told reporters “we are not that powerful to create a safe zone.”
Brussels prefers instead to consult with and influence the UN and NATO, rather than assuming any burden in Syrian territory.