By Alastair Macdonald
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - A European Union draft deal with Turkey to stop migrants reaching Greece introduces a harder edge of coercion to what critics have derided as a hitherto feeble EU response to a crisis tearing it apart.
Just last week, some saw European Council President Donald Tusk running short on ideas when he urged would-be migrants: "Do not come to Europe." UKIP, a party campaigning to take Britain out of the EU at a June referendum, said his "weak plea" was "too little too late to stop the vast migrant flow into Europe".
Yet what Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu called a "game-changing" plan for Turkey to forcibly take back not only economic migrants who make it to Greek islands off its coast but even refugees from Syria, who will then suffer disadvantages, is the strongest move yet to change the calculus of migration.
If the plan is agreed, and if it works, taking to a boat from a Turkish beach at the cost of life savings to a smuggler - and possibly of life itself - would no longer be a ticket to a better life in Germany but a rapid round trip to Turkey. There, those returned would be, in the words of EU officials, "at the back of the line" for legal asylum and resettlement in Europe.
The United Nations refugee agency warned that Europe must not close its door to those in need, as civil war in Syria has left millions homeless and afraid. Human rights groups have been scathing about a Europe preaching democracy but cutting a deal with a Turkish government accused of persecuting opponents.
Many are concerned about a quickfire process of deporting everyone back to Turkey with little regard for individuals.
But 1.2 million people reached the EU last year to claim asylum amid chaotic scenes on beaches and on the long trek north from Greece through the Balkans. It has set EU states at odds, shut long-uncontrolled borders and fueled nationalist sentiment among voters across the bloc. Leaders' patience is thin.
"We need to break the link between getting in a boat and getting settlement in Europe," they said after Monday's summit.
An earlier EU plan foresaw deportation back to Turkey reserved for those, such as Pakistanis or North Africans, with little likelihood of winning refugee status in the EU - though in practice making such distinctions has proven problematic.
The new plan would see even Syrians and others with stronger asylum claims being shipped with little ceremony back across straits, now being demonstratively patrolled by NATO warships.
To force back crowds that last year numbered up to 20,000 a day seems impracticable. But EU officials said the key was to dissuade people from traveling in the first place.
For every Syrian sent back from a Greek island in future, another Syrian would be entitled to a legal, safe trip to Europe. That could be a rather small number if deterrence works, so EU leaders agreed to consider also resettling larger numbers.
For Europeans, the deal could help end a crisis that has jeopardized their cherished Schengen passport-free zone.
There are clear gains for Greece, where Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras has warned of becoming a "warehouse of souls" as more than 30,000 migrants have become stranded there since its northern neighbors began closing their borders. The downside could be ugly scenes on the islands off Turkey.
For German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who worked closely on the deal with Davutoglu before the summit, a dramatic sign of an imminent end to the crisis could be a boost in regional elections on Sunday that will, in part, pass judgment on her decision last summer to open Germany's doors to Syrians.
Turkey is seeking in return some 6 billion euros ($6.6 billion) to help improve the lives of refugees over the next three years - twice as much as a two-year deal with the EU struck in November, as well as the opening of new "chapters" in its long-stalled negotiation to join the European Union.
Also important for Turkish public opinion is a request to bring forward by four months to June a plan to make it easier for Turks to travel without visas to Europe's Schengen zone.
Several European governments have strong reservations about the Turkish proposals. Cyprus is wary about lifting its veto on parts of the accession process as long as Ankara does not end a refusal to recognize or trade with Cyprus, diplomats said.
It is also concerned not to disrupt talks that have brought the prospect of ending the four-decade division of the island.
France, sceptical of Turkey ever joining the EU, is resistant to a rapid easing of visa requirements for Turkey. President Francois Hollande said it would still have to meet 72 criteria - among them modernizing Turkish identity documents.
Britain, too, where Prime Minister David Cameron is campaigning to persuade voters to back continued EU membership on June 23, is wary of newspaper headlines suggesting 75 million Turks may soon be traveling more easily around Europe, even if Britain is outside the Schengen visa area they could access.
And central and eastern European states, long opposed to EU efforts to force them to take in a share of refugees, are concerned about elements of the deal that could see more calls for asylum-seekers to be resettled around the bloc.
However, the lure of an end to the crisis - at least inside Europe - may prove a compelling argument despite the critics.
John O'Brennan, Jean Monnet Professor of European Integration at Maynooth University in Ireland, tweeted: "EU norms of pluralism are being completely eviscerated. By the European Union itself. Shame on this dirty deal with Turkey."
Summit chair Tusk, a former Polish premier, insisted the EU was not going soft on defending human rights in Turkey. But he stressed the benefits of the plan to crack down on travelers, saying: "The days of irregular migration to Europe are over."
(Editing by Robert Birsel)