Turkey and the European Union sketched out a new plan Monday to stem the flow of migrants, in the absence of EU agreement on how to handle the surge in arrivals from Syria and other countries.
Europe has struggled with an influx of migrants and asylum seekers that brought more than 1 million people to its shores last year, with some 135,000 more following since January. Many are fleeing the war in Syria, but economic migrants have also joined their ranks.
To stem the flows, the EU has sought help from Turkey, which has been the launch pad for most migrants. But an initial deal between Brussels and Ankara, reached in October, has done little to curb the arrivals.
Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu unexpectedly presented his EU counterparts with new proposals during an extraordinary summit in Brussels on Monday, including offering to take back all migrants and asylum who arrive in Greece.
In return, EU member states would commit to directly resettling one Syrian refugee out of Turkey for each Syrian that Ankara takes back from Greece.
This would remove the incentive for Syrians to pay criminals to smuggle them across the Aegean Sea, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said. "Doing so will not only land you back in Turkey, but will put you on the bottom of the list for resettlement," he added.
The deal put forward by Ankara would also lead to an increase in EU funding for Syrians living in Turkey.
Davutoglu said his country is not "demanding any money" to cope with the migration crisis, but rather "fair burden-sharing." Ankara says it has taken in 2.7 million Syrian refugees, at a cost of more than 10 billion dollars.
"Our main objective is humanitarian," he added. "We don’t want to see women and children dying in [the] Aegean Sea."
But the deal also includes long-sought progress on Turkey's EU membership bid and the offer of lifting visa requirements for Turkish citizens visiting the bloc by the end of June, as long as Ankara fulfils the necessary conditions.
French President Francois Hollande noted that Turkey would have to meet 72 EU benchmarks for visa-free travel. He argued that the deal did not grant Ankara favourable conditions, but was in the interest of both sides.
"Without Turkey, we cannot settle the problem because the refugees are coming via Turkey," he said.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel also backed the Turkish proposals, arguing that they could bring about a "qualitative change" to the migration crisis if fully implemented. She expressed hope that the deal could be concluded at the next EU summit on March 17-18.
In the meantime, EU President Donald Tusk is to continue negotiating with Ankara on key details of the arrangement.
The negotiations with Turkey are part of several measures the EU is undertaking to bring the migration surge under control. Most arrivals came via Greece last year, continuing their journey through the Western Balkans to reach wealthy northern European states.
Countries along the migration route have imposed border restrictions in recent weeks, but the move has sparked a humanitarian crisis in Greece, which was already contending with thousands of migrants arriving from Turkey.
More than 13,000 people were waiting to cross from Greece into Macedonia, aid agencies estimated early Monday. Local media reported that the border between the two countries was closed, including for freight trains.
Merkel opposed moves at the summit to declare the Western Balkan route closed, as had been demanded by countries along the path.
"When it comes to the question of how we get the number of refugees to decrease not just for some, few countries, but for all countries - including Greece - it cannot be about closing something or other," Merkel told journalists.
In their joint statement, the EU leaders instead recalled a previous commitment to stop waving through migrants and asylum seekers, while noting that "irregular flows of migrants along the Western Balkans route have now come to an end."
They also pledged to "stand by" Greece as it copes with thousands of stranded migrants and do their "utmost to help manage the situation," as well as calling for further assistance to help Athens manage its external borders, including those with Macedonia and Albania.
There are concerns that the stranded migrants may eventually look for another route to northern Europe, for instance via Albania and Italy.