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EU chief sees first consensus on migrant crisis
[BRUSSELS] EU president Donald Tusk struck an unusually upbeat note on the migrant crisis Friday as Turkey raised the possibility of taking back non-Syrian asylum seekers.
Wrapping up a whirlwind diplomatic tour by meeting Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Tusk predicted an agreement to shut down the Western Balkans route that most refugees and migrants have taken into the European Union.
His prediction ahead of a crucial summit in Brussels on Monday came as new official figures showed that a record 1.2 million asylum seekers arrived in the EU in 2015 - more than double the figure from the year before.
"For the first time since the beginning of the migration crisis, I can see a European consensus emerging," Mr Tusk said in an invitation letter to leaders ahead the summit, which will include Turkey.
He warned success depended largely on securing Turkey's agreement at the summit for the "large-scale" deportation from Greece of economic migrants who do not qualify as refugees and the curbing of the flow of new arrivals.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said his government was mulling the possibility of taking back asylum seekers from countries other than Syria.
"We have started looking at the possibility of re-admitting asylum seekers, notably from Morocco, Pakistan or Afghanistan," he said in a joint press conference in Athens with Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias.
"We already have readmission agreements with Greece, Bulgaria and other countries and we are preparing to sign others." Mr Cavusolglu said Greece had submitted 860 requests for Turkey to take people back, "99 per cent" of which had been accepted.
On Wednesday, 300 migrants from North Africa were sent back from Greece to Turkey, the first time that a 2002 agreement between Ankara and Athens had been used, a Greek official told AFP.
The official also said Athens and Ankara were in talks to create a fast-track procedure to send migrants back to Turkey.
Brussels meanwhile unveiled a plan for saving the passport-free Schengen zone, which has been jeopardised by several countries closing their borders in response to the huge influx of humanity from Syria and elsewhere.
The Aegean crossing has been the scene of hundreds of deaths, and a Turkish court on Friday jailed two Syrian people smugglers over the death of Aylan Kurdi, the three-year-old boy who drowned and was washed up on a beach in September.
The EU has been deeply divided on how to handle the biggest migration crisis to hit the continent since World War II, with a series of summits since the start of 2015 failing to produce a solution.
French President Francois Hollande said at talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Paris on Friday that they had the "the same spirit and the same will" in handling the migrant crisis.
But Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras poured cold water on Tusk's optimism, saying his country, the main port of entry for migrants coming to Europe, could not stop migrants heading to the richer northern countries like Germany.
Mr Tsipras also criticised "unfriendly" Balkan countries that have shut their borders, causing a bottleneck of around 12,000 migrants at Greece's border with non-EU Macedonia.
Diplomatic efforts have failed to relieve the human misery along the Greek-Macedonia frontier where conditions worsened after a night of driving rain and plummeting temperatures.
The sheer scale of the crisis was underscored by the latest figures from the EU statistics agency.
Syrians fleeing the civil war were the largest group of the 1.2 million who entered Europe, numbering nearly 363,000, followed by 178,200 Afghans and 121,500 Iraqis.
Separate EU figures showed that an average of 1,943 people were still crossing to Greece every day in February, way above what Brussels wants.
"We need to see the flows from Turkey drastically down soon," EU Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos told a news conference as he unveiled the bloc's new "roadmap" for Schengen.
The plan calls for the end of temporary border controls and the restoration by the end of 2016 of full free travel across the 26-country Schengen zone.
Brussels also called for the creation of an EU coastguard force by the summer.
If Schengen collapses and border controls return it could cost the EU between five billion and 18 billion euros (US$7.5-$27.5 billion) a year - equivalent to 0.05 per cent to 0.13 per cent of the bloc's economic output, Brussels said.
The crisis now poses an "existential" threat to the EU that challenges its ideals of peace and solidarity that were formed in the ashes of World War II, former European Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso told AFP.