EU leaders and Turkey have agreed a comprehensive plan that opens a safe and legal route to the EU for Syrian refugees while reducing irregular migration. The plan fully respects EU and international law, and comes into effect on 20 March.
European Commission President, Jean-Claude Juncker underlined that the agreement "respects all European Union and international norms. Refugees and asylum-seekers will have their requests handled individually, and will be able to lodge appeals. The principle of non-refoulement will be respected."
The agreement finalises the one-for-one principle that EU leaders and Turkey provisionally agreed on 7 March: all new irregular migrants crossing from Turkey into Greek islands will be returned to Turkey; and for every Syrian returned to Turkey from Greek islands, another Syrian will be resettled from Turkey to the EU. This temporary link between resettlement and return is feasible up to a limit of 72,000 using the EU's existing resettlement and relocation commitments, under which respectively 18,000 and 54,000 places remain available.
President Juncker recognised that the European Union and Greece were facing a "Herculean task" to implement the plan. The President announced that he had appointed Mr Maarten Verwey – who is already in Greece as the Commission's Director-General of the Structural Reforms Support Service – as the European Union's coordinator to organise the dispatching of the 4,000 staff that will be needed from Greece, Member States, the European Asylum Support Office and FRONTEX. President Juncker announced that the Commission had earmarked €280 million for the first six months of the plan.
"Idomeni is not my idea of Europe," said President Juncker of the humanitarian situation in Greece. He underlined that the agreement with Turkey in no way lessened the need for solidarity, and said that the relocation of refugees from Greece to other EU Member States needed to reach 6,000 per month. The President recalled that a massive humanitarian effort is already taking place on the ground: "Today [18 March] the Commission approved another €30 million of support for the Greek army as it helps the 45,000 refugees in the country. This brings our support to Greece to a total of €180 million since last year."
As part of the agreement, the EU has agreed to accelerate implementation of Turkey's roadmap for visa liberalisation with a view to lifting the visa requirements for Turkish citizens by the end of June 2016. Turkey must now fulfil all remaining conditions so that the Commission can adopt its proposal by the end of April. At the same time, EU leaders agreed, under the Dutch Presidency of the Council, to open a new chapter – number 33 on financial and budgetary provisions – in Turkey's accession negotiations.
The EU has also agreed to speed up the disbursement of the initially allocated €3 billion under the Facility for Refugees in Turkey. Once these resources are about to be used to the full, and provided all other commitments are met, the EU will mobilise an additional €3 billion euro up to the end of 2018.
Hotspots, relocation and returns
The agreement with Turkey is one part of the EU's efforts to provide a lasting European solution to the refugee crisis. All other parts of the strategy will continue and accelerate, as proposed by the Commission and agreed by Member States. The European Council acknowledged that many parts of the response are producing results, in particular now that all hotspots in Greece and Italy are operational. However, as the Commission reported earlier this week, the relocation and resettlement of asylum-seekers must urgently speed up.
Restoring the Schengen system
The European Council reaffirmed its commitment to restore the full functioning of the Schengen system, starting with the strengthening of the EU's external border. The Commission's proposal for a European Border and Coast Guard is progressing in both the European Parliament and Council – the aim is to become operational by the summer.
Jobs, growth and competitiveness
On the economic front, the European Council endorsed the Commission's strategy for creating jobs and growth – the virtuous triangle of investment, structural reforms and responsible public finances. Member State governments are expected to reflect these priorities in their reform programmes to be presented next month. In June, leaders will discuss progress towards completing the Economic and Monetary Union and on the Commission's Single Market agenda, including the Digital Single Market and Capital Markets Union strategies. EU leaders also welcomed the launch of the consultation on the European Pillar of Social Rights.
European steel industry
On the challenges facing the European steel industry, President Juncker said that the European Council had welcomed the Commission's strategy, published earlier this week, and it called on Member States to examine all of the actions proposed.
VAT Action Plan
The European Council welcomed the Commission's intention to propose increased flexibility for reduced rates of VAT and the possibility of VAT zero rating for sanitary products.