German Chancellor Angela Merkel will explore new possible ways to admit Syrian refugees to Europe at a mini-summit with Turkey and several EU leaders Thursday, as she struggles to control a migrant crisis that has split the 28-nation bloc.
The mass influx of migrants will feature prominently on the agenda of a full European Union summit later Thursday, after the executive European Commission proposed this week new measures to stem the tide, including a common coast guard.
Merkel and Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker will meet with Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and several EU leaders beforehand, diplomats close to the talks said. They will discuss taking in Syrians directly from Turkey under an additional scheme that member states would be able to join voluntarily.
Germany, by far the top destination for asylum seekers in Europe, has been the driving force behind the voluntary resettlement idea, saying it would help Turkey and EU member states.
The idea for voluntary resettlement is linked to a wider deal with Turkey under which Ankara would keep migrants from leaving for Greece in return for financial aid from the bloc, accelerated visa-free travel for Turks to the EU and a revival of long-stalled membership talks.
The EU is at loggerheads over two distinct issues: relocation of migrants who have already arrived in Europe through Greece and Italy, and resettlement of a limited number directly from Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon.
The proposal, however, does not set a minimum number of refugees EU states would take from Turkey in the next five years, and no formal decisions are expected when leaders of Germany, Austria, Belgium, Luxembourg, Finland, Sweden, Greece and the Netherlands meet Davutoglu.
Merkel may also try to enlist the help of other leaders individually during the main summit, diplomats said. France and others could still decide to join the prior meeting, they added.
A draft final statement prepared by diplomats for the full EU summit said only that member states should "rapidly examine" proposals for a "voluntary humanitarian admission scheme."
Resettlement would be carried out by the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR. The commission said the body is able to handle 80,000 cases globally a year — less than 10 percent of the number of migrants that have flooded into Europe in 2015.
The figure puts a clear cap on the scope of any such scheme. The newspaper Die Welt quoted Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann as saying Europe should be ready to take in 40,000 to 50,000 refugees from Turkey under the program, provided Ankara delivers on the secure border commitment.
Some diplomats said the mechanism could also provide a way forward for central and eastern European member states including Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic, who oppose obligatory quotas for relocating migrants agreed in September.
Of the 160,000 that EU member states agreed to take in from Italy and Greece, about 200 had been relocated by mid-December, according to the commission.
Resettlement is seen as a mechanism that could be easier for member states to accept and implement than relocation under mandatory quotas, because it would give them more time to vet and choose candidates for asylum before receiving them.
A government source in Berlin said one option would be to deduct the number of people resettled under the voluntary scheme from each member state's mandatory relocation quota.
There are 2.3 million Syrian refugees in Turkey now, and the EU already has similar deals with Lebanon and Jordan, the two other countries hosting major camps for Syrians fleeing the war that is now in its fifth year.