Cyprus threatens to block EU-Turkey migrant deal

EU president Donald Tusk warned Tuesday that hard work lay ahead to finalise a proposed deal with Turkey to end Europe`s migration crisis, after Cyprus threatened to derail it over longstanding disagreements with Ankara.

AFP| Last Updated: Mar 16, 2016, 02:27 AM IST

Ankara: EU president Donald Tusk warned Tuesday that hard work lay ahead to finalise a proposed deal with Turkey to end Europe`s migration crisis, after Cyprus threatened to derail it over longstanding disagreements with Ankara.

Tusk held hastily arranged talks in Nicosia in an attempt to win Cyprus`s backing for the proposal, which has been hailed as a "game-changer" for countries buckling under the burden of a mass refugee influx.

But there has been a growing pushback against the deal, with both France and the Czech Republic warning Tuesday against attempts by Turkey to "blackmail" Europe.

Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades said his country would not accept "Turkish demands without (the) implementation of Turkey`s long-pending obligations," including Ankara`s official recognition of the Cyprus government.

EU and Turkish leaders agreed last week to a tentative proposal that calls for the return to Turkey of all new migrants landing in Greece. For each Syrian refugee returned, the EU agreed to take one from a Turkish camp and resettle them in Europe.

Cyprus has expressed reservations, not least as its longtime adversary Turkey expects the accord to lead to the opening of new chapters in Ankara`s EU membership bid and the easing of visa requirements in Europe`s passport-free Schengen area.

From Nicosia Tusk flew on to Ankara for talks with Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, saying afterwards it was "not an easy task" to make the proposal legally sound and acceptable to all 28 EU members.

"It is clear that there is still hard work to be done," Tusk said, adding there were "a catalogue of issues" to address if an agreement was to be reached at a new summit on Thursday and Friday.The UN`s top officials on refugees and human rights questioned whether the plan would be legal and Tusk conceded this was an issue that still had to be worked out.

Paris on Tuesday insisted that Turkey will not be allowed to dictate terms at the summit.

France will tell Turkey it wants "more efficient" cooperation on the migrant crisis, but will warn against any attempt at "blackmail", Prime Minister Manuel Valls said.

Czech President Milos Zeman also lashed out at Turkey on Tuesday, claiming that Ankara was seeking billions of euros more in EU aid.
"Impolite people like myself call that blackmail," he told reporters.

Last year more than 1.2 million people travelled to Europe in search of a better life, in the continent`s biggest migration crisis since World War II. Member states such as Greece, where arrivals are highest, are struggling to cope.

On Tuesday, some 1,500 migrants who managed to cross into Macedonia despite the border being closed were sent back to Greece.

Officials said the group of men, women and children had left an overcrowded camp on the Greek side on Monday and waded thigh-deep through a river to get into Macedonia, where they were stopped by troops.

Macedonian army spokesman Toni Janevski told AFP the migrants were returned to Greece "without any incident or use of force".

A Cypriot refusal of the migrant-swap deal would effectively block the largest diplomatic push yet to ease Europe`s burden of accommodating hundreds of thousands of refugees, most of whom enter the EU through Turkey.

The island of Cyprus has been divided since 1974 when Turkish troops invaded its northern sector in response to an Athens-engineered coup attempt. 
Turkey does not recognise the Cypriot government and Nicosia has blocked six key chapters of Ankara`s negotiations for EU membership since 2009, effectively halting the process.

Cyprus insists Turkey must first meet its longstanding demands for recognition, and to open up trade ties, ports and airports. 

Complicating matters further are UN-backed negotiations between the Nicosia government and the Turkish Cypriot administration, which is recognised by Ankara, aimed at reuniting the island. 

European sources say EU officials recognise they took the wrong approach to Cyprus`s concerns, which were overlooked in the enthusiasm among member states for a deal.

At one point last week in Brussels, Anastasiades was involved in a heated confrontation with key European figures, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, in which he came under heavy pressure to back the accord, sources said.

Tusk`s Cyprus visit was arranged at the last minute -- a sign of Brussels` realisation that a new approach is needed.

"I am not here to exert pressure on Cyprus," the EU president told reporters. "I am here to listen to your position."

European leaders are still hopeful that a deal with Turkey can be reached, and the EU said on Tuesday that it had pushed back plans to overhaul the bloc`s asylum system until an accord is place.