Turkey offered the European Union help at a summit on Monday to control the influx of refugees into Europe by proposing a plan that included faster membership talks, increased funding and speeding up the proposed visa-free travel for its citizens to an earlier date, the EU welcomed the proposal.
At the emergency EU-Turkey summit, addressing Europe’s biggest refugee crisis since World War Two, PM Davutoglu presented new ideas that went beyond Ankara’s commitments thus far.
The statement prepared during the summit listed actions that both sides could take to end the refugee crisis.
Leaders from the 28-nation bloc requested detailed work by officials in order to reach an ambitious package deal with Turkey for the summit scheduled on March 17-18.
British Prime Minister David Cameron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and many others hailed the surprise Turkish proposal.
Just over a million people have fled war in the Middle East and travelled to the EU in 2015, most taking a dangerous sea voyage from Turkey to Greece and heading north through the Balkans to Germany.
Among the actions listed, Turkey proposed to take back refugees from the Greek islands, including Syrian refugees, as well as those who intercepted in its territorial waters.
The statement said that the EU would offer a further 3 billion euros ($3.3 billion) until the end of 2018 to help Turkey shelter Syrians, doubling the previous amount from an earlier offer.
The EU also proposed that it would ease visa requirements for Turkish citizens wishing to visit Europe’s Schengen-area by the end of June, earlier than it had been planned, the EU leaders agreed to the earlier target date for the visa-free travel, provided Turkey introduced harder-to-fake biometric passports.
"With this game-changing position in fact our objective is to discourage illegal [undocumented] migration, to prevent human smugglers, to help people who want to come to Europe through encouraging legal migration in a disciplined and regular manner," he told a news conference after the summit.
EU leaders welcomed Turkey's offer to take back all migrants who crossed into Europe from its soil and agreed in principle to most of Turkey's demands.
European Council President Donald Tusk, who chaired the summit, said the outcome would show asylum seekers that there was no longer a path into Europe for people seeking a better life.
"The days of irregular migration to Europe are over," he told a joint news conference with Davutoglu.
The EU had failed to implement a series of "fairly good decisions" taken in 2015, including an agreement to relocate refugees from Greece and Italy to other EU states.
The meeting in Brussels will set out a tougher position on taking in refugees who reach Greece and formalise the closing of borders against those heading north from there.
Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, rejected the plan to resettle refugees directly to European states from Turkey, a Hungarian government spokesman said on Monday.
Orban's tough stance on the refugee crisis has boosted right-wing support at home. Last month he proposed a referendum on whether Hungarians would accepted the EU's planned system of resettlement quotas, one his government firmly opposes.
Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said that the meeting would also address Ankara's bid to join the EU and he hoped for a "turning point," adding that Turkey was indispensable for the EU, just as Europe was for Turkey.
"Turkey is ready to work with EU. Turkey is ready to be member of EU as well," he said as he arrived in Brussels.
EU leaders will also reassure Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras in the housing of the thousands now stranded in Greece, who hoped to follow the million that found refuge in Germany last year, diplomats said after a meeting of EU envoys on Sunday before the summit.
An EU endorsement of recent border closures by Macedonia, Austria and other countries on the route north from Greece will be accompanied by a renewed commitment to revive stalled plans to redistribute asylum claimants around the 28-nation bloc.
A draft EU agreement declared that the "West Balkan route is closed," however, diplomats added that the statement was likely to go through considerable redrafting.
The United Nations refugee chief called for European countries to assist Turkey on Monday by taking in hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees, as EU leaders in Brussels that they needed more time to consider the proposal.
In the joint action plan, the most important thing is showing responsibility by taking people in the hundreds of thousands, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi said.
Turkey is hosting more than two million Syrian refugees, the most of any country worldwide, providing protection and assistance and allowing some to work, Grandi said.
NATO sends ships into Greek and Turkish waters
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said on Monday that NATO sent its ships into Greek and Turkish waters in the Aegean Sea to struggle with the criminal networks smuggling refugees into Europe, overcoming territorial sensitivities in Greece and Turkey.
"NATO is starting activities in territorial waters today," Stoltenberg told a news conference in Brussels, flanked by Turkish Prime Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu.
"We are expanding our cooperation with the EU's border agency Frontex and we are expanding the number of ships in our deployment," he said, adding that France and Britain had agreed to send ships to the Aegean.
Germany is leading the NATO mission that was agreed on Feb. 11, which also includes ships from Canada, Turkey and Greece. Until now, ships had been in international waters.
NATO said earlier that a new naval force in the Aegean secured approval for operating in Turkish and Greek waters. That will lend force to a new agreement by Turkey to take back refugees halted in its waters and those who reach Greek islands but fail to qualify for asylum in Europe.
Three months ago, EU leaders, fearful that border closures have put their Schengen passport-free zone in jeopardy, agreed to provide 3 billion euros ($3.3 billion) to help care for Syrian refugees in Turkey. They also promised to revive talks on Ankara's EU membership and speed up a plan to give Turkish travellers easier visa access to the EU.
"Using Turkey as a ‘safe third country’ is absurd," Amnesty International's deputy director for Europe, Gauri van Gulik said. "... Europe has an absolute duty to protect refugees and must make the bold decision to fast-track significant, unconditional resettlement as a matter of urgency."
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Monday criticised the EU for a four-month delay in disbursing a promised 3 billion euro fund agreed under a November deal for refugees, which Turkey has been hosting.
Also, during a televised speech on Monday, President Erdogan addressed that he hoped Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu would return from the summit with the 3 billion euros promised from the EU.
However, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who faces regional elections next Sunday that will pass judgment on her decision to take in refugees last year, is keen to see a three-month old deal with Ankara start working. She was meeting Davutoglu in Brussels late on Sunday.
Germany has been pushing for the resettlement of thousands of Syrian refugees from the more than two million in Turkey, as well as large numbers from Jordan and Lebanon. But diplomats say that is unlikely to be discussed in detail until the EU sees that flows from Turkey are falling.
Over a weekend that saw at least another 18 people drown in the straits between Turkey and Greece, Turkish gendarmes mounted a raid on a beach opposite Lesbos. Reuters journalists saw them stop some 120 refugess from leaving and arrest at least two from a refugee-smuggling gang.
However, some 30,000 refugees are trapped in Greece and 2,000 to 3,000 more arrive daily. Tsipras, struggling with an economy blighted by the euro-zone debt crisis, has called for urgent help and insisted Greece will not become a "warehouse of souls."
Diplomats and EU officials said they believe that clear signs Europe's external borders are being brought under control can ease resistance from some in the EU to a plan to relocate refugees from Greece to other European countries - a scheme that has seen barely 300 people move from Greece over the past few months.