BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union asked member states on Wednesday to grant visa-free travel to Turks in return for Ankara stopping migrants reaching Europe, but insisted Turkey must still change some laws and said it would get no “free ride”.
Lawmakers in the European Parliament, which along with a majority of the 28 EU governments must approve the measure if it is to take effect as Ankara wants within two months, warned that they would not vote it through until Turkey met every condition, including narrowing the scope of crimes it defines as terrorism.
Governments anxious to allay public fears of a wave of immigrants from Turkey itself secured a new emergency brake to apply to all countries with visa-free travel to Europe’s 26-nation Schengen zone.
The EU executive stressed that only Turks with biometric passports containing facial and fingerprint data can benefit, though Turkey will only start issuing such documents later this year.
The deputy head of the European Commission defended its proposals as well as plans to expand EU membership negotiations; they upheld a deal with Ankara that has helped cut migrant arrivals in Greece to dozens a day from thousands and were also a way of reversing a worsening rights situation in Turkey.
“There is no free ride here,” Commission First Vice President Frans Timmermans told reporters, stressing that Ankara must still meet five of 72 criteria the EU imposes on states exempt from visas.
In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel expressed confidence that Ankara would satisfy the criteria.
“I believe that, given the progress Turkey has made on other points, there is a realistic chance that those points still outstanding will be fulfilled,” she said.
This week was effectively a deadline for the Commission to issue its formal recommendation on visas if it is to satisfy Ankara by July. Otherwise the migrant deal would be at risk.
Feuds over the migration crisis reared their head again when a separate proposal from the Commission to spread asylum seekers around the EU according to quotas backed by effective fines for non-compliance were denounced as “blackmail” and a “dead end” by ministers from the ex-communist east who refuse to accept refugees.
Member states, led by Germany which took in most of the 1.3 million refugees and migrants who reached Europe across the Mediterranean last year, have already mostly accepted that the visa-free regime for Turks is part of the price for what many see as the best chance for a sharp reduction in those arriving.
But qualms about Turkey’s treatment of some migrants and some of its own citizens notably from the Kurdish minority, as well as President Tayyip Erdogan’s crackdown on the media, have fuelled resistance to concessions in the European Parliament.
A joint statement from the legislature on the visa issue said there would be no short-cuts in an approval procedure which officials say would normally take several weeks.
Turkey’s minister for EU relations, Volkan Bozkir, said he believed all 72 criteria had already been met and he hoped the process could be completed on schedule by the end of June.
“There is still work to be done as a matter of urgency,” the EU’s Timmermans said. “But if Turkey sustains the progress made, they can meet the remaining benchmarks.”
Turkey agreed in March to take back any migrant who reach Greek islands by boat after paying human traffickers in return for EU cash for refugees and pledges to take to Europe directly some of the 2.7 million Syrians now on its soil.
That deal was driven by Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu while Erdogan kept his distance from promises of travel freedom many Turks would relish but doubt will be honoured.
“I hope they’ll end visa requirements and everybody will travel freely but I don’t believe it will be the case,” travel agent Atalay Yasar said as he waited in line in Istanbul to apply for Schengen visas for his customers.
Worried that anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim parties which have surged across the EU could capitalise on fears of impending visa freedoms, not just for 79 million Turks, but also for 45 million Ukrainians as well as people from Georgia and Kosovo, France and Germany have pushed for tighter controls.
The Commission proposed amending the regulation that governs all EU visa-free schemes, giving it powers to suspend the waiver quickly if, say, large numbers overstay their 90-day allowance.
Britain, which votes next month in a referendum on quitting the EU, is exempt from the visa and asylum quota systems.
Additional reporting by Gulsen Solaker in Ankara, Jan Lopatka in Prague, Gergely Szakacs in Budapest, Gernot Heller in Meseberg, Germany, and Seda Sezer and Melih Aslan in Istanbul; Writing by Alastair Macdonald; Editing by Mark Heinrich