Germany and several other nations are to discuss with Turkey ways of settling thousands of Syrian refugees ahead of the final EU summit of the year.
Those attending the meeting will discuss a proposal to resettle Syrians straight from camps in Turkey.
But German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the driving force behind the plans, faces resistance from other EU states.
Thursday's full EU summit in Brussels is set to focus heavily on the migrant crisis which has divided members.
Record numbers of people have arrived in Europe this year, prompting some states to build fences and introduce border controls in defiance of the EU's border-free Schengen area.
The resettlement proposal would see EU countries accept Syrian refugees directly from Turkey under a voluntary scheme.
It is hoped the plan will stop people making the dangerous sea journey to Greece and will be more palatable for EU members than obligatory quotas.
Turkey and European leaders struck a deal last month in which Ankara tries to prevent migrants leaving in exchange for financial aid and political concessions.
As a tumultuous year draws to a close, European leaders are struggling to maintain unity. They have been overwhelmed by weight of numbers, as nearly a million migrants and refugees have arrived on European shores.
Now Angela Merkel is once again taking the lead trying to work out ways to admit Syrian refugees straight from camps in Turkey.
Initially figures in the hundreds of thousands were being discussed - already that has fallen to tens of thousands. And plans for resettlement will only move forward if Turkey takes decisive steps to cut off the illegal flow of people crossing the Aegean Sea.
Plans to relocate 160,000 refugees who have already arrived in Europe are moving extremely slowly - so far only around 200 have actually been transferred from one country to another.
The wider EU summit will discuss European Commission plans to create an EU coast guard, and other ways to strengthen external borders.
The fight against terrorism is also expected to dominate the summit after it emerged that at least two of the Paris attackers used the migrant route to travel to France.
Many migrants are themselves fleeing violence in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, seeking to reach northern Europe.
Keen to keep migration and terror as separate issues, European Council President Donald Tusk said "the protection of our external borders is not intended to scare off those who flee wars or persecution".
"Europe is a community of freedom and will always provide shelter for those in danger," he wrote in a summit invitation.
The summit will also discuss British efforts to renegotiate its membership of the EU before holding a referendum, by the end of 2017, on whether to say or leave.
Chancellor Merkel has stressed the "enormous importance" of avoiding a British exit but said she was not prepared to give in to all of Prime Minister David Cameron's demands for reform.