BRUSSELS — European leaders struggled Thursday to reach a deal that balanced their concerns about legal protections for refugees and Turkey’s human rights record with their desperate need to resolve the migrant crisis.
On the table was a tentative plan to send back to Turkey tens of thousands of would-be asylum seekers who set out by boat for the Greek islands, in exchange for concessions that would reward Ankara with billions of dollars in aid, unprecedented visa access to Europe and promises of faster European Union membership talks.
Human rights groups and leading EU legislators decried the plan as a cynical cave-in, sacrificing universal rights to pander to a restless electorate fed up with hosting people who are fleeing war and poverty.
Even some leaders acknowledged the EU was walking a tightrope.
“It is on the edge of international law,” Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite said of the outline deal that the 28-nation bloc hopes to sign off on before putting it up for approval to Turkey on Friday.
Some also criticized Turkey, which hosts 2.7 million refugees, complaining it was cynically trying to exploit the situation to win concessions well beyond its reach under normal circumstances.
“Turkey is really asking for a lot. I refuse to accept negotiations that sometimes resemble a form of blackmail,” said Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel.
Desperate to plug a yawning border hole that has seen more than 1 million people arrive in Europe in search of sanctuary or jobs, EU leaders have been increasingly looking to outsource management of the influx to Turkey.
They see the deal with Turkey as a way to halt the flow by land and sea, especially as the weather turns warmer, and prevent people from turning to unscrupulous smugglers.
Thousands have drowned in the Mediterranean trying to reach Greek or Italian islands. About 46,000 people are stranded in Greece after Macedonia shut its border to stem the flow along a popular migrant route through the Balkans. At least 14,000 are camped in the mud at a makeshift tent city in Idomeni, on the Greece-Macedonia frontier.
At one tent, 29-year-old Soukeina Baghdadi warmed herself by a fire shared with neighbours. Like many, she wants to move to Germany and is hoping that Europe’s leaders can help.
“All the people here are waiting for the summit, waiting for the borders to open,” she said.
Baghdadi, who was born in Lebanon but lived in Iraq with her husband, is not keen on Europe’s plan to distribute refugees like her in Greece to other EU states.
“I don’t want to go through the relocation process because I’m told that would mean waiting between six months and a year,” she said.
Under the plan, set to be finalized Friday in the presence of Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, the EU would resettle one Syrian refugee currently in Turkey to the EU, in exchange for each person that Turkey takes back to Greece.
The U.N. refugee agency has doubts about asylum standards in Turkey, and human rights groups are concerned about Ankara’s crackdown on the media and a bloody conflict with Kurdish rebels. There also are questions about whether the deal conforms to international law.
“The proposed EU-Turkey deal won’t work,” said David Miliband, head of the International Rescue Committee. “A comprehensive resettlement program is a humane, orderly and legal way to manage the refugee crisis.”
The humanitarian group said the EU has the economic might to resettle almost 300,000 people in the next five years.
Guy Verhofstadt, leader of the Liberal ALDE group in the European Parliament, said that “it cannot be the Turks who decide who enters the EU as a refugee. We have to keep the keys to Europe in our own hands.”
Spain also opposes any blanket return of migrants, even though the EU’s executive Commission insists that every migrant will have an individual interview and the right to appeal.
Cyprus is threatening to veto one of the sweeteners meant to win Turkey’s backing faster EU membership talks. Turkey does not recognize the Mediterranean island’s Greek-Cypriot government.
“Every candidate country should fulfil its obligations, and it’s obvious that unfortunately, until now, Turkey hasn’t,” President Nicos Anastasiades said in Brussels.
Even if that hurdle is overcome, the enlargement issue will crop up again. Austria, France and Germany are opposed to Turkey joining the EU.
Other issues of trust have surfaced. The EU will provide Turkey with 3 billion euros ($3.3 billion) to help Syrian refugees, but will only increase that fund by up to another 3 billion euros more if Ankara uses the money appropriately.
“We need strong commitments from Turkey, and so far I have no assurances on this,” Michel said, and added: “Better no deal than a bad deal.”