European Commission backs visa-free travel for Turkey

Proposal is key concession offered by the EU as part of March deal to tackle migrant crisis

European Commission First vice president Frans Timmermans said since the EU-Turkey migration deal had come into effect, the number of migrants arriving to Greece had fallen to less than 100 per day. Photograph: Francois Lenoir/Reuters

European Commission First vice president Frans Timmermans said since the EU-Turkey migration deal had come into effect, the number of migrants arriving to Greece had fallen to less than 100 per day. Photograph: Francois Lenoir/Reuters

 

The European Commission has recommended that visa requirements should be lifted for Turkish citizens visiting the EU’s Schengen area by June, as it hailed the “impressive progress” made by the Turkish government in meeting the benchmarks for visa liberalisation.

The proposal - which must be endorsed by EU member states and the European Parliament - is a key concession offered by the EU to Turkey under the terms of a controversial EU-Turkey resettlement deal struck in March to tackle the migrant crisis.

Ireland and Britain, which are the only EU member states not in the Schengen area, will not be affected by the proposed deal.

In an update on Turkey’s progress towards meeting visa-liberalisation requirements issued on Wednesday, the Commission said that Turkey had met most of the conditions set out in the Visa Liberalisation Roadmap, but five benchmarks still remained.

“Turkey has made impressive progress, particularly in recent weeks, on meeting the benchmarks of its visa liberalisation roadmap,” EU vice president Frans Timmermans said in Brussels. “There is still work to be done as a matter of urgency but if Turkey sustains the progress made, they can meet the remaining benchmarks.”

Among the outstanding issues are the introduction of anti-corruption measures, legislation on terrorism, and judicial cooperation in criminal matters. In addition, Turkey needs to upgrade its existing biometric passport system to include security features in line with EU standards, the Commission said.

The issue of granting visa-free access to Turkey’s 79 million citizens is a controversial one within the EU.

While Turkey has officially been in accession talks with Brussels since 2005, there has been minimal political will to advance the talks in recent years.

But the refugee crisis has pushed the EU to engage with Ankara, offering the promise of visa-free travel, an acceleration of accession talks and €6 billion in funding in exchange for Turkey reaccepting migrants who have travelled to Greece via Turkey.

Migration deal

Issuing the update on Wednesday, vice president Timmermans said since the EU-Turkey migration deal had come into effect, the number of migrants arriving to Greece had fallen to less than 100 per day, compared to thousands per day last year.

But there are already warnings of the difficulties that lie ahead to secure full support for the deal, with the Green group in the European Parliament warning that visa liberalisation should not be used as a “bargaining chip” by the EU, particularly in light of recent political developments in Turkey.

The Commission also announced an overhaul of the Dublin regulation. The system, which underpins the EU’s asylum policy, obliges refugees to seek asylum in the first country of arrival, but has come under strain as the EU struggles to deal with the biggest migration flows since the second World War.

While the new proposal stops short of suggesting a permanent mandatory quota system which would see migrants distributed across the bloc, it proposes that a distribution system based on national quotas would be activated in the event that a member state has a disproportionate number of asylum requests.

Member states could choose to opt out of the system subject to a payment of a €250,000 “financial solidarity contribution” to the member state receiving the applicant.

Under the proposal, member states whose asylum applications are 50 per cent higher than its agreed share, could trigger the distribution system.

Responding to the proposal, the European Parliament’s second-largest political group, the Socialists and Democrats welcomed the revision of Dublin, but said that the new system should not just be triggered in emergency cases. “The current ineffective system has not been completely replaced by an automatic and truly European mechanism,” the group said.

But the possibility of a €250,000 fine per person for non-compliance with the scheme is likely to be staunchly resisted by some central and eastern member states. Hungary and Slovakia have already mounted legal challenges to a previous EU mandatory relocation scheme which was pushed through despite strong opposition from a number of countries.