U Turn: Merkel Insists Balkans Route Not ‘Closed’, Shutting Borders ‘Not An Option’


German Chancellor Angela Merkel has said “closing borders” is “not an option” and demanded a sentence declaring the “western Balkans [migrant] route closed” is crossed out in a statement from the European Union (EU) summit with Turkish leaders today.

EU leaders are meeting Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu in Brussels today, to try and agree on a way to stem the flow of migrants entering Greece and attempting to reach Western Europe.

A draft statement published before the summit yesterday indicated leaders would push for the Balkan route to be closed, the open-door policy to end and for all non-Syrian migrants to be sent back to Turkey in “large scale” deportations.

However, upon arriving at the critical talks the German government — as well as European Commission president Jean Claude Juncker (pictured above greeting Prime Minister Davutoğlu) — appear to have had a change of heart. Both are reported to have demanded the strong wording be changed.

The sentence “The Western Balkans route is now closed” has been crossed out, “otherwise countries like Austria get their way”, BBC News Journalist Sofia Bettiza reported this morning.

“For all countries, including Greece, closing [borders] not an option”, Chancellor Merkel told reporters outside, adding: “Our agenda can’t be about closing something.”

However, French President Francois Hollande appeared to disagree. “The [Western Balkan] route is closed, that’s the case today”, he told reporters.

“There must be commitments by Turkey against people smugglers… Europe has to commit to a program of resettlement, meaning Syrian refugees are welcomed in Europe”, he said, referring to the unpopular forced migrant quota system which was pushed though the EU parliament against the will of member states last year.

Despite Germany’s refusal to declare it so, the Balkans route is already effectively closed. Hungary, Bulgaria and Macedonia have erected large fences on their borders, and some 40,000 migrants are now trapped in Greece, unable to progress north. Austria has also passed legislation, capping migrant numbers.

The leaders are expected to discuss today the finer details of the €3 billion aid deal offered to Turkey in an attempt to persuade them to do something to stem the tide of migrants reaching Greece. Turkey’s 75 million citizens were also promised visa-free travel in the EU if their leaders comply.

Thousands continue to make the crossing each day, however, with 140,000 having reached Greece so far this year and another 100,000 migrants likely to arrive by the end the month, Europe’s migration commissioner warned on Saturday.

At the beginning of February Turkey demanded the aid package be increased to €5 billion after being criticised by the EU for doing little or nothing to stem the migrant exodus since the agreement was first made.

Turkey’s Islamist President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan cranked up his rhetoric on the 11th of January, promising to “open the gates” to hundred of thousands of migrants who could be transported into Europe by “bus” and even “plane”, unless his demands for more aid were met.

Guy Verhofstadt, the leader of the European Parliament’s Alliance of Liberals and Democrats group, said in a statement that cooperation from Turkey was unreliable and creating a unified EU border force was the real solution:

“EU leaders are risking everything on a single card: Turkey. Outsourcing our problems to Turkey is however naive.

“Moreover we should not sell our soul for a deal with a country simply because we are incapable of dealing with our problems and implementing a real European solution.

“Again we continue to accept empty promises such as the returning of all non-Syrian migrants reaching Greek islands back to Turkey.

“In other words, we are accepting a deal to return migrants to a country which imprisons journalists, attacks civil liberties, and with a highly worrying human rights situation”, he said.

He added: “The real alternative is a genuine European response,which invokes article 78.3 to create a European Rapid Refugee Emergency Force to manage all European external borders, especially those between Turkey and Greece.

“Greece is completely overwhelmed and it’s the obligation of all EU countries to show solidarity and assist Greece.”

Prime Minister David Cameron said the “migration crisis is the greatest challenge facing Europe today”. He said the UK would assist by sending in the Royal Navy to patrol the Aegean Sea, but insisted the UK was be insulated from the crisis because it is not part of the Schengen no border area.

“Britain has not faced anywhere near the scale of migrants coming to Europe as other countries because we are out of Schengen and retain control of our borders”, he claimed.