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 EU unity as one of its toughest ever years draws to a close.

The leaders of Germany and several other nations met the Turkish prime minister before the full summit to discuss a plan to resettle thousands of Syrian war refugees directly from camps in Turkey.

But an EU report due to be presented at the summit on Thursday meanwhile said a three-billion-euro ($3.2-billion) deal with Turkey in November had so far had little effect, with only a "slight reduction" in the number of migrants crossing to Greece.

The full summit of 28 leaders will also debate a plan by the European Commission for a new force that could intervene in countries without their consent, to stem a record flow of nearly one million migrants this year.

EU president Donald Tusk said the "controversial" plan was necessary to shore up Europe's borders and protect its passport-free Schengen zone, under threat as some states reintroduce border controls.

"Europe cannot remain vulnerable when Schengen states are not able to effectively protect their borders. If we reject the Commission's proposal, we will have to find another, but I'm afraid, an equally painful solution," he said.

- 'Unacceptable' demands -

Meanwhile British Prime Minister David Cameron faced an uphill battle as he prepared to set out his EU reform demands for the first time to his counterparts, ahead of a referendum due by the end of 2017.

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.

Tusk warned that some of Cameron's demands "seem unacceptable" but hoped for a solution that would give a "real chance" of a deal at the next summit in February to prevent a "Brexit" from the EU.

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.

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 with 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 foundation. But calls for "more Europe" fly in the face of an increasingly sceptical European electorate.

- Border sovereignty fears -

Amid rising populism, security fears in the wake of the Paris terror attacks and concerns about Schengen, a divided EU has held an unprecedented 12 summits this year to find solutions.

On migration, 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.

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.

© 2015 AFP

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