PARIS - European Union leaders said Tuesday they have reached a possible deal with Ankara to return thousands of migrants to Turkey, and that they are confident a full agreement can be reached at a summit next week.
After months of disagreements and increased bickering among the 28 EU nations, the leaders said they agreed to give Turkey more money to help refugees, swiftly ease visa requirements for Turks and speed up Ankara's accession talks in exchange for its help in stemming migration flows to Europe.
French President Francois Hollande said "the summit has created hope that the refugee question can be dealt with through solidarity in Europe, and efficiency in cooperation with Turkey."
All eyes are now on March 17 and the start of a two-day summit to finalize the commitment and agree on a deal that the leaders hope will allow for a return to normalcy at their borders by the end of the year.
"We hope that we can have an efficient method as well as a results-oriented approach, humanitarian approach without harming any refugee or the rights of refugees," Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said in advance of the reported agreement at a news conference at NATO headquarters.
New demands from Turkey
But the difficulties in reaching a deal were underscored by the talks themselves, which stretched hours later than initially scheduled. Turkey, which is sheltering an estimated 2.7 million Syrians, was reported to be asking for an extra $3.3 billion from the EU, roughly twice the amount already pledged by the 28-member bloc.
The new set of demands also included a deal for the EU to resettle one Syrian refugee from Turkey in return for every Syrian refugee Turkey takes back from Greece. In addition, Turkish authorities wanted to speed up sputtering EU membership talks that have made little progress over the years.
Davutoglu cast the new Turkish proposals as a way to both rescue lives, staunch migrant trafficking and herald "a new era in EU-Turkish relations."
But deep divisions remain over finding a solution to Europe's biggest refugee crisis since World War II. More than 1 million migrants arrived on the continent last year, and roughly 142,000 have arrived so far this year, many crossing the Aegean to EU member Greece from Turkey.
Beyond differences with Turkey, EU countries are split among themselves over how to handle the crisis, as some countries install border controls while others — notably Germany and Sweden — call for a more humanitarian approach. Those differences were on display during an EU summit last month, when leaders failed to make any headway on the migrant issue.
‘Collective solution’ needed
New spats have flared up, including between France and Belgium over the fate of asylum-seekers in Calais — which has also been a longstanding bone of contention between France and Britain, the ultimate destination of many.
Even some areas of agreement — such as the voluntary resettlement of roughly 160,000 asylum-seekers — have shown little progress on the ground.
"There is a lack of political willingness to implement the decisions that have been taken," said Sergio Carrera, senior research fellow for the Center for European Policy Studies in Brussels, who said he was baffled by the EU's inaction toward asylum-seekers, many of whom come from conflict-torn countries such as Iraq, Syria or Afghanistan.
Arriving at the talks Monday, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras — whose country is on the front lines of the migrant influx — called on fellow EU members to honor their resettlement agreement.
"This is a European problem, so we have to find collective solutions to this problem," he said.
Some governments, however, seem opposed to following even already-existing rules, according to Carrera.
"These include basic human rights of the people arriving,” he said. “Then they want to rewrite their rules according to their own wishes."
But, he added, "a union cannot function like this."
Meanwhile, thousands of migrants are now stuck in Greece since non-EU member Macedonia blocked their passage northward as part of a domino series of border controls established by Balkan countries.
And more keep arriving — or lose their lives trying to do so. At least 18 asylum seekers were drowned off the Turkish coast Sunday, according to news reports.
Ahead of the Brussels meeting, Human Rights Watch warned that a potential deal with Ankara would mean a "flawed and potentially dangerous policy to refugee flows" across the Aegean.
"EU leaders are in a panic to stop refugee flows before spring," senior Human Rights Watch official Judith Sunderland said, "and they seem willing to throw human rights overboard in the process.