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Politics

EU Greenlights Major Funding Plan for Refugees in Turkey

BRUSSELS — European Union leaders greenlighted plans on Friday to give Turkey another 3 billion euros ($3.6 billion) over the next few years to provide fresh assistance to Syrian refugees on its territory and to help the country boost border controls.

"It's about additional funds of 3 billion euros, then afterwards also funds for Lebanon and Jordan," German Chancellor Angela Merkel told reporters. She said the plan, drawn up by the EU's executive branch, "will soon be formally endorsed."

Turkey reacted coolly to the plan, saying it's a way for Europeans "to ensure the EU's own peace and security." 

Well over 1 million migrants entered the EU in 2015, many of them fleeing conflict in Syria and Iraq. The arrivals through Turkey overwhelmed facilities in the Greek islands, and sparked one of the EU's biggest-ever political crises.

To persuade Turkey to stop people leaving its territory, the 27-nation bloc offered the country 6 billion euros for Syrian refugees and the prospect of fast-track EU membership talks and visa-free travel in Europe for its citizens. Arrivals quickly dropped to a relative trickle, and the EU is keen to update the arrangement. 

Membership talks are at a standstill, and Turkey has still not fulfilled several criteria to secure visa-free travel, but the European Commission has handed over most of the funds and will pay the rest as contracts are completed. Separately, it is providing a further half a billion euros for refugees there this year. 

Turkey is estimated to now host around 3.7 million refugees from the conflict in Syria. Lebanon and Jordan are also sheltering hundreds of thousands each. But Turkey is also a source of great concern for the EU, particularly disputed energy exploration work in the east Mediterranean that had heightened tensions with EU member states Greece and Cyprus.

In a working paper prepared for the summit, seen by The Associated Press, the commission said the support "has been highly effective and efficient." It proposed that "a further 3 billion euros from the EU budget shall be dedicated until 2024 to support actions in Turkey."

It said that "in programming the actions under this package, will gradually move from humanitarian priorities to socio-economic support and development. This will include funding for migration management and border control, notably at Turkey's eastern border."

It's the first time that such EU funding has been earmarked for migration management and border controls. The earlier funds were spent directly on shelter and education projects for Syrian refugees in Turkey. None of that money went directly to the Turkish government.

The precise border area was not specified, but it's likely to refer to Turkey's frontiers with Syria and Iraq.

Merkel said the EU will continue to work on improving a customs arrangement it has with Turkey providing favorable tariffs on certain goods. "Of course, we expect further constructive behavior from Turkey. We have seen an improvement of the situation in the Mediterranean Sea," she said.

An additional 2.2 billion euros would be spent to help refugees and displaced people in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, according to the commission plan. 

But Turkey's Foreign Ministry said in a statement Friday that "reducing cooperation on migration to a financial dimension is a big delusion." It called for greater cooperation between Turkey and the EU to deal with the issue.

The ministry called for a review of the Turkey-EU migration deal reached in 2016 in a manner that "responds to the needs of the day and common interests." It said that other European decisions about Turkey were far from "containing expected and necessary steps."

The ministry specifically complained that no decision was taken to implement a "positive agenda" in relations between the bloc and Turkey, including agreement on the customs union update. It insisted that Turkey has fulfilled its "responsibilities in terms of reducing tension and initiating a dialogue" with Greece.

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