European Union leaders on Friday agreed to release the second 3 billion euro ($3,72-billion) tranche in assistance for Syrian refugees in Turkey.
The meeting of EU leaders in Brussels underscored how Europe’s 2015 spike in immigration continues to haunt the bloc despite a sharp drop in arrivals of people fleeing conflict and economic hardship in the Middle East and Africa.
It took place in an atmosphere of political crisis, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel under intense political pressure at home and a new eurosceptic Italian government threatening to torpedo any deal that did not meet its demands.
“We have agreed to allocate the second tranche for Turkey,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel told reporters when leaving the EU summit, which continued into the early morning hours of Friday. But she acknowledged that the bloc still had “a lot of work to do to bridge the different views.”
“Italy is not alone anymore,” said Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte.
French President Emmanuel Macron said European cooperation had “won the day.” However, in a final statement full of convoluted language meant to satisfy the divergent views, the leaders agreed to set up joint asylum processing sites and restrict migrant moves within the bloc, but they made clear that virtually all of their pledges would be carried out on a “voluntary basis” by member states.
They also agreed to tighten their external border and increase financing for Turkey, Morocco and other North African states to prevent migration to Europe.
In March 2016, the EU and Turkey reached an agreement to stop irregular migration through the Aegean Sea, and improve the conditions of more than 3 million Syrian refugees in Turkey.
The EU had pledged 6 billion euros ($7,44 billion) in funding for the refugees, and promised to mobilize the second 3 billion euro ($3,72 billion) tranche by the end of 2018. Merkel said Turkey has done much for more than 3 million Syrian refugees it has hosted since the beginning of the Syrian civil war.
On Thursday, Italy had raised objections to releasing the additional 3 billion euros in aid. The Italian government demanded stronger solidarity from its EU partners regarding migration.
“The European Council agrees on launching the second tranche of the Facility for Refugees in Turkey …” Thursday’s summit conclusions said.
Turkey hosts some 3,5 million Syrians, more than any other country in the world. Ankara claims it has spent around $25 billion helping and sheltering refugees since the beginning of the Syrian civil war.