The European Union's executive will propose next month to lift visa requirements for Turkish citizens visiting the bloc, if Ankara meets conditions, the executive said Wednesday, with a migration-stemming deal between them hinging on the issue.
Brussels has agreed to consider granting Turkish citizens the long-awaited prospect of visa-free travel to the EU by the end of June, in return for Ankara's help in halting migration flows from Turkey into the bloc.
Last year, more than 1 million migrants and asylum seekers reached Europe, many using smugglers to help them undertake the perilous sea journey from Turkey to Greece in hopes of reaching wealthy northern countries such as Germany and Sweden.
Turkey has stressed that the success of the migration deal depends on whether the EU moves ahead on the visa issue. But the bloc has insisted that Ankara must do its part by meeting 72 benchmarks laid down as conditions for visa-free travel.
"Visa liberalization is a matter of criteria. The criteria will not be watered down in the case of Turkey," Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said Tuesday in a speech to the Council of Europe, the continent's human rights watchdog.
Turkey says it has already met more than 50 of the benchmarks, and is working on completing the rest.
If the criteria are met in time, the European Commission said it will propose on May 4 that Turkey be transferred to the visa-free list. Member states and the European Parliament must then decide whether to approve the move.
The comments came as the commission assessed the implementation of the EU-Turkey deal, under which migrants and asylum seekers arriving from Turkey on the Greek islands as of March 20 are to be sent back.
The EU has pledged to take in one Syrian refugee from Turkey for each Syrian returned to the country in this way.
But the deal has come under fire from human rights organizations, who have criticized the way refugees and asylum seekers are being treated.
In Strasbourg, France, the Council of Europe's parliamentary assembly on Wednesday approved a resolution raising concerns over the human rights fallout of the deal and legal questions about its compatibility with European and international law.
The rights watchdog body said returning asylum seekers to Turkey should be halted until the legal issues are resolved. The 47-member Council of Europe parliament does not have binding powers, but it influences the European Court of Human Rights.
"The deal at best strains and at worst exceeds the limits of what is permissible under European and international law," said Tineke Strik, who brought the resolution.
"Even on paper, it raises many serious questions of compatibility with basic norms on refugees' and migrants' rights. It has so far given every indication of being even more problematic in practice."
The agreement struck on March 18 is beginning to have an effect, commission Vice President Frans Timmermans said Wednesday, noting that there has been a sharp decrease in arrivals in Greece over the last three weeks.
"The message is starting to get through that turning to smugglers is the wrong choice to make," Timmermans said.
So far, 325 migrants have been sent back from Greece under the new arrangement, according to commission figures, while 103 Syrian refugees have been resettled from Turkey to EU member states.
Implementation of the deal must now be stepped up on all sides, the commission said. Turkey must make "further efforts" to make sure that all those in need of international protection receive the necessary support, the commission said.
EU member states need to step up their support to Greece, the bloc's executive said, calling on them to take in more refugees from Greece under a previously agreed scheme and to increase their support to EU agencies on the ground, among other things.
The EU has pledged an initial 3 billion euros (3.4 billion dollars) in aid for Syrian refugees living in Turkey, with a view to later doubling that figure if all goes as planned.
Sixteen of the EU's 28 member states have now pledged their initial contributions, covering 1.61 billion euros of the 2 billion euros they have agreed to provide, the commission said. It is providing the remaining 1 billion euros.