BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union is pressing Ankara to cut the number of migrants reaching Greece by sea to less than 1,000 a day in return for taking refugees directly from Turkey, EU officials said, desperate to see results from a deal agreed last year.
Facing a humanitarian crisis in Greece, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has pushed for an emergency EU summit with Turkey on March 7 in Brussels that will follow days of intense diplomacy with Ankara to save a Nov. 29 deal meant to stem migrant flows.
“There is no good alternative to an effective cooperation with Turkey,” said European Council President Donald Tusk before heading to Ankara to hold talks with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan on Thursday.
Three months since Ankara agreed to help tackle Europe’s worst migration crisis since World War Two, more than 2,000 people a day are still crossing the Aegean Sea in dinghies and fishing trawlers from Turkey until they reach Greek islands.
Two officials told Reuters that Germany, the principal destination for migrants, is looking for daily flows to be “in the realm of three digits, not four” in order to start taking refugees directly from Turkey for resettlement.
Resettlement would help send a message to Syrian refugees in Turkey that there is a path into Europe which avoids risking drowning at sea or getting stuck at borders that are rapidly closing across Europe, a third EU official said.
More than one million people arrived in Europe last year, fleeing war and failing states in the Middle East, North Africa and Asia. Numbers have been declining in the last few months, also because of the winter, but remain high.
“The Germans are ready to make a move if the Turks bring the number of arrivals below a thousand a day,” said an EU official involved in the negotiations and who requested anonymity.
With smaller flows, the European Union could also begin to send Turkey money to help house Syrians and other refugees under the terms of the 3 billion euro ($3.26 billion) deal agreed in November. None of the money has yet been disbursed, although nearly 400 million euros of separate EU funds are already being spent to help the refugees in Turkey.
The U.S.-led NATO alliance has also agreed to help patrol the Aegean to tackle people smugglers. But that mission is not yet at full steam, so the so-called EU-Turkey joint action plan remains the bloc’s central focus.
In return for more help from Turkey, Brussels is willing to speed up Ankara’s long-stalled EU accession talks and help to accelerate visa liberalization for Turks visiting Europe.
Officials have warned that the consequences of inaction are already multiplying, mainly in the border closures and the erection of fences that are threatening the viability of the EU’s passport-free Schengen travel area.
“We expect a more intensive engagement from our partners to avoid a humanitarian disaster,” the EU’s Tusk said after talks on Tuesday in Vienna and Ljubljana, where he called for an end to the border closures that have caused scenes of desperation and clashes with police at Greece’s frontier with Macedonia.
Austria last month limited the number of migrants it lets through to 3,200 a day, something EU officials say was a panic reaction that prompted Macedonia to close its border.
Merkel is expected to discuss the situation with French President Francois Hollande in Paris on Friday.
On Monday Merkel played down the chances of a breakthrough at next week’s summit, telling a political meeting in Germany: “I cannot promise that the next summit will solve all our problems. But we can take another step forward.”
In one sign of possible progress, Turkey has offered to sign readmission agreements with 14 countries, the foreign ministry’s spokesman said on Wednesday, a move which would enable it to take back more quickly migrants rejected by the EU.
On Wednesday the Commission said that 308 irregular migrants were in the process of being returned to Turkey from Greece. “A small move but a good step in the right direction,” an EU official said.
Addtional reporting by Paul Taylor in Paris and Andreas Rinke in Berlin; Editing by John Stonestreet and Gareth Jones