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EU eyes shifting some development funds towards tackling migration crisis

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Talks to shift some funds away from fostering development in the European Union’s poorer eastern regions towards handling a large migrant influx mainly into its west may cause fireworks at a meeting of EU finance ministers on Friday.

To stem the flow of Middle East and African refugees passing through Turkey into EU territory, the 28-nation bloc agreed last year on proving 3 billion euros ($3.39 billion) to Ankara to keep them there. But raising the money has proven complicated.

After lengthy negotiations, a third of the 3 billion euros is to come out of the central EU budget in Brussels, with the rest coming from EU governments.

But with the influx of refugees showing no signs of abating, and costs for reception centres, housing and other benefits for migrants soaring, the EU is mulling how to raise funds earmarked for the humanitarian challenge in a more structured manner.

“The migration issue has been (described) by many as (having) existential importance for the EU. So it seems logical that (its) budget should be able to address such an important issue adequately,” an EU presidency official said on Tuesday.

The issue will be discussed by EU finance ministers when they gather in Brussels on Feb. 12 for their regular monthly meeting, the official, a Dutch diplomat, said. The Netherlands currently hold the rotating, six-month EU presidency.

No final decisions will be taken on Friday, but officials expect the talks to be heated.

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Central and Eastern European countries are the main beneficiaries of EU structural funds and the staunchest opponents of moves to pour more funding into the refugee crisis.

Germany, the EU’s biggest economy and contributor to the EU budget, is keen to increase structural funding for migration.

About one third of the EU’s 1-trillion euro budget for 2014-2020 is now set aside for projects in poorer, mainly eastern countries and regions of the bloc through so-called “structural funds”. These are often used to build, for example, motorways, bridges or sewage treatment plants.

At the same time, less than two percent of the EU budget is earmarked for security, migration and “citizens” issues, including health and culture projects.

“Structural funds are using such a vast percentage of EU budget. If migration is a very important issue for the Union as a whole, one has to look where the money is,” the EU presidency official told journalists.

Last week, Austria asked the European Commission, the EU’s executive, to provide 600 million euros ($670 million) to cover some costs of the 90,000 migrants who arrived in the small Alpine republic neighbouring Germany in 2015.

Reporting by Francesco Guarascio; Editing by Mark Heinrich