Countries should risk suspension of their visa-free EU travel rights if they don't adhere to European values, said a senior EU lawmaker Thursday amid a growing debate about extending the privilege to Turkey for its help in curbing migration flows.
Last month, the European Union struck a deal with Ankara under which migrants reaching Greece from Turkey can be returned to Turkey. As part of the deal, Brussels has offered the prospect of lifting visa requirements for Turkish citizens visiting the bloc starting in July, if Ankara meets predefined benchmarks.
But the move is controversial among EU member states. Some worry that it could encourage people to illegally resettle in the EU or pave the way for thousands of Turkish Kurds to seek asylum in the bloc. There are also worries it could create a security risk by opening the door to radicalized Islamists.
An "emergency mechanism" already exists to suspend visa-free travel benefits if countries persistently breach the rules, EU lawmaker Manfred Weber, who heads the centre-right European People's Party (EPP), said Thursday during a debate in the European Parliament.
The EPP is the largest political faction in the EU legislature.
"I would argue that we should look at this emergency mechanism again to check if the provisions take effect quickly enough if a state ... does not permanently meet the criteria," Weber added, noting that this should apply to any country, not just Turkey.
But he went on to say that, in relation to visa liberalization for Turkey, such assurances would "be a very important tool to give people confidence."
The European Commission is due to issue a report next Wednesday on Turkey's progress in fulfilling the EU's 72 conditions for visa-free travel to the bloc. It is expected to recommend the move if it finds that all have been met.
It would then be up to EU member states and the European Parliament to take a decision.
Turkey, which is also a candidate for EU membership, says it has already implemented most measures and will complete the outstanding ones by Wednesday.
Ankara has repeatedly stressed that its cooperation in stemming migration flows to Europe hinges on being granted visa-free travel for its citizens, insisting that there can be no restrictions.