Migrant crisis, Britain dominate European summit

17th December 2015, Comments 0 comments

European leaders tackled the migration crisis and Britain's reform demands at a summit on Thursday, twin challenges threatening the unity of the EU as one of the toughest years in its history draws to a close.

Germany and several other nations are meeting with the Turkish prime minister before the full summit to discuss a plan to resettle thousands of Syrian refugees directly from camps in Turkey.

Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, is leading the meeting of the so-called "coalition of the willing" involving 11 countries but the plan faces opposition from other European Union nations.

The full summit of 28 leaders will also debate a controversial plan for a new EU force that could shore up borders without the host country's consent, to stem a record flow of nearly one million migrants this year.

Then over dinner in Brussels, Prime Minister David Cameron will set out his reform demands for the first time to his counterparts, aiming for a deal at the next summit in February to prevent a "Brexit" from the EU.

Cameron has vowed to "get a great deal for the British people" before holding a referendum on Britain's membership by the end of 2017, which could see it become the first country to leave the bloc.

- 'Fair deal for Britain' -

But the debate promises to be stormy as the other 27 leaders are almost unanimously opposed to Cameron's main demand -- a four-year wait before EU migrants working in Britain can claim welfare benefits.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said that he hoped to hear "other options to the single one proposed" by Cameron for the benefits ban.

"We want a fair deal with Britain but this fair deal with Britain has to be a fair deal for the other 27 too," Juncker told reporters ahead of the summit.

EU president Donald Tusk said there would be "no taboos", while officials from several EU countries said there appeared to be no concrete alternatives on the table to Cameron's benefits plan.

The debate in Britain has also been fuelled by concerns over the migration crisis -- the worst of its kind in Europe since World War II.

The summit wraps up an 'annus horribilis' for the EU which has seen it confront overlapping crises -- the Ukraine conflict, Greece's euro crisis, migration, the Paris attacks and Britain -- that have threatened the post-war dream of a unified continent.

In many cases the root problem has been the same -- ideals of monetary and geographical union without the political architecture to back it up. But calls for "more Europe" fly in the face of an increasingly sceptical European electorate.

- Border sovereignty fears -

Amid rising populism and fears the EU's Schengen passport-free zone could collapse, a divided EU has held a string of emergency summits on the migration crisis this year to find a solution.

The latest scheme is a new border and coastguard force with 1,500 quick-reaction agents and the "right to intervene" in states that are not protecting their borders properly -- whether or not that country agrees.

Many states are worried about a loss of sovereignty to Brussels, including Greece, the country that has seen by far the biggest number of migrant arrivals.

"You cannot give national sovereignty to some technicians (technocrats). These are highly political decisions. We say that the state must give consent," said Greek European Affairs Minister Nikos Xydakis.

Other plans have been bogged down by divisions, with a deal for EU states to take in 160,000 refugees from overburdened Greece and Italy resulting in just 208 people being relocated so far, largely due to opposition from eastern Europe.

A three-billion-euro ($3.2 billion) EU deal with Turkey -- which is currently home to more than two million Syrian refugees -- to stop migrants coming to Europe has yet to bear fruit.

But EU leaders do look set to roll over sanctions against Russia over the Ukraine conflict, despite Italy insisting on delaying the decision from last week so that it could be discussed at the summit.

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© 2015 AFP

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