Merkel speaks out against closure of Balkan migration route

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Monday that she is against closing borders to stem the flow of people into Europe, ahead of an EU summit with Turkey aimed at finding fresh solutions to the migration surge.

Merkel called for a "sustainable solution together with Turkey," to ensure that migration flows are reduced for "all countries, including Greece." The European Union's approach "cannot be about closing something or other," she added.

Her statements follow border restrictions implemented by Western Balkan countries along the migration route to northern Europe, which have left thousands of migrants and asylum seekers stranded in Greece.

"It's not a problem of one country, this is a European problem. So [we] have to find collective solutions," Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras said ahead of the talks with his Turkish and EU counterparts.

EU leaders had been asked at the summit to consider declaring the Western Balkans migration route to be "closed," but Merkel is among those opposing the move, diplomats said.

Most of the migrants arriving in Greece pass via Turkey. The country's prime minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, was due to join part of the summit.

Davutoglu called Monday for "solidarity," noting that Turkey and the European Union needed one another. "We have to see the whole picture – not just irregular migration, but the whole future of our continent is on the table," he said.

Overall, nearly 140,000 migrants and asylum seekers have reached Europe's shores since the beginning of the year, following more than 1 million arrivals in 2015. Almost half of them are fleeing war-ravaged Syria, according to the United Nations' refugee agency, UNHCR.

The surge has created tensions in the European Union and put at risk its most notable achievements, such as the Schengen free-travel zone and the concept of solidarity between member states.

EU President Donald Tusk, nevertheless, showed himself carefully optimistic ahead of the 28 leaders' summit, which he will chair.

"For the first time since the beginning of the migration crisis, I can see a European consensus emerging," he wrote to the leaders.

The EU wants Ankara to hold back asylum seekers and is now also pushing for the country to take back economic migrants who have arrived in Greece, but do not qualify for asylum.

"The political will is there, but it poses a logistical challenge, in which we have to support Greece," Tusk wrote to the leaders.

Turkey and the EU are also negotiating a deal under which Ankara could take back Syrians from Greece, in return for which the bloc would do more to resettle asylum seekers directly from Turkey, sources in Brussels said Monday.

The EU leaders' meeting with Davutoglu will be overshadowed, however, by the Turkish government's takeover of the Zaman opposition newspaper.

"Freedom of media is a non-negotiable element of our European identity," said European Parliament President Martin Schulz, noting that he had raised the issue with Davutoglu earlier Monday.

Relations with Turkey are "difficult," he said, while adding that "it is necessary, [in] the interest of the refugees, to cooperate."

The developing humanitarian crisis in Greece is also likely to dominate the Brussels summit.

The leaders are set to pledge support to Athens, promising that the EU will "do its utmost to help manage the situation that has arisen," according to a draft of their joint statement, seen by dpa.

More than 13,000 people are 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.

Last update: Fri, 24/06/2016 - 08:49

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