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EU leaders pledge to work with Turkey to revive migration deal

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Via Financial Times

EU leaders have vowed to work with Turkey to prevent renewed tensions at their shared border and revive a 2016 migration deal between the two that has slid close to collapse.

Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission president, said she and Charles Michel, her European Council counterpart, had spoken “plainly and . . . openly” with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey at emergency talks in Brussels on Monday. 

Ms von der Leyen said the two sides would attempt to “fill in the missing pieces” in the 2016 agreement struck to curb migration from Turkey to the EU, which came under severe pressure last month after Mr Erdogan said he had “opened the gates” to Europe. Thousands of refugees and asylum seekers travelled to the border with Greece, where most were kept out by guards who in some cases used tear gas and live rounds. 

“We are going through the whole statement,” Ms von der Leyen said of the 2016 deal, under which the EU agreed to pay €6bn for refugee projects in exchange for Turkey taking back people who travelled to the Greek islands. “Every topic will be a matter of discussion and evaluation.”

Mr Erdogan’s Brussels trips follow disputes with European countries in the wake of Turkey’s military involvement in northern Syria. An offensive launched by the Syrian dictatorship of President Bashar al-Assad and its Russian backers in Idlib, a rebel-held enclave in Syria’s north-west, has forced almost 1m people to flee, according to the UN.

Mr Erdogan did not speak to the media after the talks with the EU chiefs. He appealed for more concrete security help from Nato after a meeting earlier on Monday with Jens Stoltenberg, the alliance’s secretary-general.

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Mr Erdogan said that no Europe country “should have the luxury of standing idly by” while a humanitarian crisis unfolded in Syria. “We are in a critical period where the Nato alliance must show its solidarity [with Turkey] in a clear way,” the Turkish president said.

Turkey is still formally in talks to join the EU that began in 2005, but relations between the two sides have been deteriorating for years. 

On Friday Europe’s foreign ministers rebuffed Turkish demands for more financial aid under the 2016 migration deal struck after more than 1m people arrived by Mediterranean routes in the EU the previous year. The Europeans are holding firm on their refusal to start giving ground to Mr Erdogan, over more cash or visa liberalisation, under the threat of “blackmail”. 

Speaking in Brussels earlier on Monday, Ms von der Leyen said Europe was caught in the “deep dilemma” of acknowledging Turkey’s hosting of refugees while wanting urgently to “future proof” the relationship with Ankara to make sure there was no repeat of the frontier problems.

Turkey, which is home to 3.6m people from Syria, has long argued that Europe has failed to carry its fair share of the burden in caring for refugees who fled the Syrian conflict. It accuses the EU of being slow to pay out the money promised under the 2016 deal and failing to uphold other commitments made as part of the agreement — including visa-free travel for Turkish citizens to Europe’s Schengen area. Mr Erdogan also wants EU support for Turkey’s controversial plan to create a “safe zone” for refugees in a swath of Turkish-controlled territory in northern Syria. 

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Mr Erdogan’s meeting with 29-member Nato’s Mr Stoltenberg came after tensions between Turkey and fellow alliance member Greece forestalled a collective statement of support for Ankara immediately after the killing of 34 Turkish soldiers in Syria by Russian-backed forces last month.

Mr Stoltenberg said on Monday that he recognised Turkey was “carrying a heavy burden” but expressed concern over the events at the Greek-Turkish border.

“The issue of migration and refugee flows is a common challenge that requires common solutions,” he said. 

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