The European council president, Donald Tusk, cleared key sticking points with the Turkish prime minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, during talks on Friday morning. “The Turkey agreement has been approved,” Finland’s prime minister, Juha Sipilä, said on Twitter.
The agreement means that all refugees and migrants arriving in Greece from Sunday can expect to be returned to Turkey. The accord, which is expected to be formally signed off later on Friday, represents a climbdown by Turkey, which had been pushing to restart EU membership talks in five areas.
In return for taking back refugees, Turkey can expect “re-energised” talks on its EU membership, with the promise of negotiations on one policy area to be opened before July. The EU has also agreed to speed up the disbursement of €3bn (£2.3bn) intended to help Syrian refugees in Turkey, with new projects to be agreed this week.
Turkey has promised that all returned people will be treated in line with international law, including guarantees that they will not be returned to the countries they have fled from.
The controversial one-for-one deal remains intact: for every Syrian refugee the EU sends back across the Aegean, a Syrian in Turkey will be given a new home in Europe.
But the number of Syrians who can be rehoused in Europe from Turkey has been capped at 72,000, far short of the 108,000 a year recommended by international aid agencies, if the EU is to do its fair share. The EU’s relocation scheme will be stopped once more than 72,000 people have been settled in Europe, amid concerns among some EU members of an open-ended commitment.
Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, earlier criticised Europe’s “shameful” record on refugees, as the two sides struggled to reach a deal aimed at stemming the flow of people to Greece.
About 45,000 people are trapped in Greece, including 14,000 who are living in squalid conditions near the Greek-Macedonian border at Idomeni, as they are barred from travelling onwards to central and northern Europe.
Although the broad outlines of the deal were agreed ten days ago between Turkey and Germany, the EU later rowed back on its offer to Turkey amid concern from other EU countries about giving too much away.
Cyprus vowed to block any plan to restart Turkey’s EU membership talks over the decades-long dispute about the divided island. As a result, the European side would only agree to restart membership talks on one policy “chapter”, on budget, not the five Ankara had demanded.
EU officials were also at pains to stress that Turkey cannot get visa-free travel for its citizens by its preferred June deadline, without following 73 stringent conditions, only half of which have been met.
The EU’s common approach to Turkey talks was agreed last night, as were safeguards designed to ensure that mass return of refugees and migrant would be in line with international law.
Anyone making an asylum claim in Greece would be guaranteed a personal interview and the right of appeal. In theory, this would allow asylum seekers, for example Kurds, to make a case for not being sent back to Turkey.
But the 20 March deadline brings huge practical challenges. EU member states have not been able to send asylum seekers back to Greece since a 2011 court ruling that found refugees suffered “degrading treatment” and faced inadequate processes that meant they were at risk of being sent back to countries, where they faced persecution.
Athens and the EU authorities will have to build a functioning asylum system in the Greece within less than 48 hours. Thousands of extra staff - judges, case officers, border guards and translators – will need to be sent to the Greek islands to ensure claims can be processed.
The returns programme will not apply to the 45,000 refugees and migrants now in Greece, who can expect to be relocated to other countries in the EU.
One EU diplomat claimed that member states were showing new interest in taking in refugees from Greece and Italy, in response to “the shame of Idomeni”.
But the relocation scheme has had a painfully slow start: since the EU promised to place 160,000 refugees from Greece and Italy elsewhere in the bloc, only 937 people have been found a new home.
Jennifer Rankin in Brussels