BRUSSELS – EU countries are squabbling over billions of new funds to deal with migration as asylum applications soar and backlogs pile up at the continent’s borders.
Germany, which received a quarter of all EU asylum applications in 2022 specifically want to « revitalize » EU ties with neighboring Turkey, according to a senior German official – a nod to the last time the bloc faced such levels of migration .
Then, in 2016, the EU offered Turkey billions in exchange for the country hosting thousands of Syrian refugees fleeing its civil war. Now, there’s a push to authorize up to 10.5 billion euros into new money not only for Turkey, but also for countries like Libya or Tunisia, hoping it will help them prevent people from entering the EU without permission.
The debate jumped onto the agenda of the EU leaders’ summit in Brussels on Thursday and Friday. And the countries are debating whether to refer to a monetary request in the final conclusions of the meeting, according to five diplomats and officials from four different countries.
The struggle behind the scenes illustrates how much migration has come to dominate the political agenda. Summit organizers had hoped to keep divisive talk about migration to a minimum in favor of discussions about Russia, China and economic security. But with high-profile disasters like the recent migrant shipwreck near Greece and arrival figures continuing their steep climb, the heated issue is becoming increasingly difficult to avoid.
In particular, draft conclusions for the summit, dated Wednesday evening and seen by POLITICO, there were still two indirect references to the new funds for migration: the 10.5 billion euro cash register and another 2 billion for « migration management » within the borders of the EU.
Whether that language survives until Friday is another matter.
Germany: Let’s talk about Türkiye, not about money
Germany, as always, is one of the protagonists of the debate and, in this case, is arguing for both sides.
On the one hand, Berlin wants to renew EU relations with Turkey, hoping it can take in more asylum seekers and help reduce unauthorized border crossings. In return, the Germans want the EU to improve trade relations with the country.
On the other hand, however, Berlin fiercely opposes the attempt to explicitly mention money in the summit conclusions. The rationale: committing to new billions now would jeopardize upcoming talks about adding 66 billion euros to its budget. Germany wants to discuss the whole package right away, instead of approving parts of it in advance.
As of Wednesday evening, the draft conclusions of the summit still contained an oblique endorsement of the money.
The document cites « financing mechanisms » – seen as a reference to the 10.5 billion euros – for « the external aspects of migration ». That money would go to countries like Turkey, Libya and Tunisia, which migrants often cross to reach Europe.
There is also an indirect reference to the €2 billion for the management of migration within the EU. The text calls for « support for displaced persons », in particular from Ukraine, through « adequate and flexible financial assistance to the Member States that bear the greatest burden of medical, educational and living costs of refugees ». Translated, this would mean more money for countries hosting the bulk of Ukrainian refugees, such as Poland and Germany.
However, during a meeting of EU ambassadors on Wednesday, German officials urged their counterparts to massively cut or scale back both steps, according to the five diplomats and officials, who, like other officials in this story, have been granted anonymity because they are not allowed to publicly discuss the talks.
As of Wednesday night, that appeal had failed. But on Thursday German Chancellor Olaf Scholz could personally address the issue with his counterparts.
The German argument is that including the figures would mean that EU leaders are essentially taking a big step towards approving the whole budget package, which the European Commission required just last week — before even discussing it, two of the officials said.
However, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen is expected to briefly present her 66 billion euro budget plan at EU leaders’ meeting on Thursday, meaning there will likely be an initial debate over the money, officials said .
Von der Leyen’s plans are expected to meet resistance from a number of countries, especially the so-called « frugal » countries, including Austria, Denmark, the Netherlands and Sweden.
Speaking at a press briefing in Berlin on Wednesday, a senior German official also expressed caution about von der Leyen’s plan.
« One of the questions is: is the Commission’s assessment of the situation convincing? » said the senior official, who could not be named due to the rules under which the briefing was organised.
Is it time to work with Erdoğan again?
At the same time, the senior German official underlined Berlin’s interest in renewing EU relations with Turkey.
“[Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan has been re-elected and this must be an opportunity for the EU to take another broad look at its relationship with Turkey,” the official said.
“For us, it is about putting EU-Turkey relations back on the agenda… to possibly revitalize them, if all parties want to engage in that,” the official continued, adding that the European Commission and the foreign policy chief of the EU Josep Borrell should « return in the autumn with proposals ».
One idea could be an update to EU trade rules with Turkey, a thorny issue, however, as talks between Brussels and Ankara have failed to make headway on modernizing the so-called EU-Turkey customs union for several years.
Scholz of Germany held a phone call with Erdoğan on Wednesday during which both leaders discussed how to « further cooperate and deepen exchanges on various cooperation issues, » according to Steffen Hebestreit, Scholz’s spokesman.
Any progress in EU-Turkey relations would also require the agreement of EU countries perpetually at odds with Turkey: Greece and Cyprus.
At least in this sense, there seems to be progress: « We have decided to include a paragraph on Turkey and future relations, » said a Greek diplomat.
The latest draft of conclusions on Wednesday evening asks Borrell and the Commission to « present a report » on EU-Turkey relations « with the aim of proceeding in a strategic and forward-looking way ».
Barbara Moens, Jakob Hanke Vela, Lili Bayer, Jacopo Barigazzi and Gregorio Sorgi contributed reporting.