European Union leaders appeared poised to make concessions to Ankara to secure its cooperation in curbing migration into the bloc on Thursday as Greece remained cautious on the prospect of working with Turkey in the Aegean.
Underscoring the relentless nature of the problem, as EU leaders met in Brussels, seven migrants drowned off the coast of Lesvos in the eastern Aegean.
Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras used his presence at the summit to call for help. “Support for Europe’s frontline countries, with respect and solidarity to the refugees, is for our common European interest,” he said. As for calls by EU officials for joint Greek-Turkish patrols in the Aegean, Tsipras was cautious, saying
Greece was ready to cooperate with Turkey “always on the base of international law and the integrity of the accession process.” “But first of all now it’s time to take brave political initiatives in order to solve the Syrian crisis, in order to try to stop these waves of refugees in the Mediterranean,” he added.
Tsipras’s comments came as Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias ruled out the prospect of Greece patrolling the Aegean with Turkey. “This would mean Turkish vessels entering our territorial waters, a move which could have long-term consequences,” he said.
Reports suggested that Turkish officials and representatives of the European Commission meeting in Ankara were close to agreeing a package of concessions from the EU in return for closer cooperation on stemming the flow of refugees via Turkey.
The deal would probably see Turkey receiving significant new funding from the EU for tackling the refugee crisis but Ankara also requested visa-free travel for Turks and the opening of six new “chapters” in its accession talks with Brussels. Any final agreement would have to be approved by the 28-member European Council.
Meanwhile, the seven people who drowned off the coast of Lesvos had been among dozens of migrants on a wooden boat trying to get to Greece from Turkey. The boat collided with a Hellenic Coast Guard vessel off the island’s northern coast.
Greek coast guard officers recovered the bodies of two women, a man, three children and a baby following the collision, which happened just after 11 a.m. Another 31 people were rescued and one more person was missing, according to the testimonies of the survivors.
It was unclear what caused the collision of the two boats. According to an official at the Shipping Ministry, the wooden boat hit the coast guard vessel which had been sent to rescue the migrants. The tragic incident came just a day after another three migrants – a woman, a child and a baby – drowned off Lesvos.
European Immigration and Home Affairs Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos is due on Lesvos today, with European Parliament President Martin Schulz and Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn. The delegation is expected to inspect reception facilities on the island.