The European Commission set a timetable on Friday to restore open borders in Europe by the end of the year as EU leaders are seeking help from Turkey to stem the influx of refugees fleeing conflict in the Middle East.
Before an emergency EU summit with Turkey on Monday, the EU executive declared the first payouts from a $3.3 billion (3 billion euro) fund to help it deal with nearly 2.5 million Syrian refugees on Turkish soil.
The EU executive also said that Turkey was making successful progress towards granting visa liberalisation for its citizens in Europe.
In return, Brussels has requested that Ankara crack down on people smuggling and taking back all illegal refugees who do not qualify for asylum in the 28-nation EU.
The leaders of Germany and France agreed in a meeting in Paris that refugees fleeing war in Syria should stay in the region and said that their common purpose was to put Europe’s Schengen passport-free travel agreement back into operation.
"Our efforts are not done yet," German Chancellor Angela Merkel told a joint news conference with French President Francois Hollande.
"I understand that Turkey also expects Europe to deliver," Merkel added.
Merkel was criticised for upcoming Monday’s summit with Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, which will be an attempt to show results before three regional elections on March 13.
European Council President Donald Tusk, who will chair Monday’s summit, met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara on Friday to press him to take action to stop the refugee flow into Greece.
The EU Commission submitted a plan to implement agreed or proposed measures, including a new EU border and coast guard, to stem the influx after more than a million people arrived in 2015.
"We cannot have free movement internally if we cannot manage our external borders effectively," Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos told a news conference.
Dimitris also declared that the first 95 million euros in aid to Syrian refugees in Turkey will be for education and humanitarian projects.
The Commission estimated in a pre-summit report to EU leaders that a complete collapse of passport-free travel in the 26-nation Schengen zone could cost the European economy up to $19.8 billion (18 billion euros) a year. Much of the cost would fall on cross-border commuters, transport and tourism.
However, investment bank JPMorgan Chase said that the short-term impact of more probable selective border controls was likely to be “small in business cycle terms.”
More than 1.2 million people requested asylum in the 28-nation EU last year, including 363,000 Syrians and 178,000 Afghans, the EU statistics agency Eurostat said.
Eight EU countries now have temporary, emergency border controls to manage the influx of refugees.
The number of refugees in Europe including 363,000 Syrians and 178,000 Afghans, the EU statistics agency Eurostat said.
Some 442,000 people were admitted into Germany, the top destination for refugees, followed by 174,000 in Hungary, which built barbed-wire fences and used security forces to shut people out and 156,000 in Sweden, the agency also said.
Stockholm said that it would scrap payments of daily allowances to refugees whose asylum applications were rejected in its latest attempt to stem the flow.
According to a poll published by a German daily, fewer than one-fifth of Germans believe that the EU will agree on a common approach to the refugee crisis and some 48 percent want Berlin to improve protection of Germany’s national borders.
A clear majority, 56 percent, said that Germany should cut its EU contributions if Monday’s refugee summit fails.
As Brussels and Berlin are pushing for a European response to the crisis, more and more EU states doubt that it could work and are resorting to unilateral steps.
"The Commission would never announce that Schengen is over," one Brussels-based diplomat from an EU country said.
"That would be a major political blow to them, the first real setback in the whole process of European integration. It would be like the pope announcing there is no God," the diplomat added.