EU executive pushing to relax visa rules for Turks

Brussels anxious to safeguard migration pact with Turkey that has helped to stem refugee flow

BRUSSELS • The European Union (EU) executive will today propose relaxing visa requirements for Turkish citizens, two sources said, after Ankara threatened to walk away from a migration agreement unless the EU eases travel rules for Turks.

The 28-nation EU depends on Ankara's cooperation to maintain a March agreement that has helped to stem the flow of refugees and migrants into the EU. Unfettered flows saw more than a million people reach Greece and Italy last year.

Liberalising visa rules for Turkey, a Muslim country of 79 million people, is a contentious issue among EU states. But Brussels is pressing ahead so it can keep the migration accord in place as Europe struggles with its worst migration crisis since World War II.

An EU official and a source close to the negotiations between Brussels and Ankara said a meeting of the EU's executive European Commission today would propose easing the visa requirements. The second source said a preparatory meeting on Monday had backed the move before the EU Commission discusses the matter today.

Turkey is supposed to fulfil 72 requirements - ranging from biometric passports to respect for human rights - to win visa liberalisation, and an EU official said on April 21 that Ankara had satisfied fewer than half of them.

However, the second source said on Monday that Turkey had since met many more, although it was clear that it would not tick all 72 by today.

An EU diplomat said separately on Monday that Turkey had now met 65 of the benchmarks. The diplomat said it was wrong to adopt only a "quantitative approach" to progress on them.

It was not clear whether the 65 had been met completely or only partly, but the swift change shows that Brussels is striving to provide more lenient travel rules, which would still not allow Turkish citizens to work or stay in the EU longer than three months.

European Commission spokesman Mina Andreeva earlier on Monday highlighted progress on the Turkish side.

"Turkey has made a lot of efforts over the past weeks and days to meet the criteria, including for example... on access to the labour market for non-Syrian refugees," Ms Andreeva said.

Among the biggest obstacles are Ankara's refusal to recognise EU member Cyprus and its patchy record on civil and minority rights, freedom of expression and the rule of law.

Moving towards meeting another of the conditions, Turkey's Cabinet has approved waiving visas for EU citizens once Europe relaxes its own visa requirements for Turks, according to a decision published in Turkey's Official Gazette.

Following implementation of the decision, Greek Cypriots will no longer require visas to visit Turkey, a Turkish official said yesterday.

However, "this doesn't mean the recognition of Cyprus. If the EU abolishes visas for Turkish citizens, then we will also abolish visas for the remaining EU countries", the official said. "Right now, Greek Cypriots can already travel to Turkey, but we are issuing their visa on a separate paper. With this new arrangement, they won't need a visa."

REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 04, 2016, with the headline 'EU executive pushing to relax visa rules for Turks'. Print Edition | Subscribe