EU interior ministers gave their backing Friday to new rules making it easier to suspend visa-free access to the bloc in the case of a migration surge or abuses of the system, amid a debate about granting visa liberalization to Turkey.
The European Union struck a deal with Ankara in March aimed at stemming a flow of migrants from Turkey into the bloc, in return for accelerated efforts to grant Turkish citizens visa-free access to Europe, among other things.
But the move is controversial among EU member states, amid fears that it could trigger a surge in asylum claims from Turkish citizens or encourage people to illegally settle in the bloc.
"We need an emergency brake for all visa-free counties to make sure that visa liberalization cannot be abused," said Dutch Migration Minister Klaas Dijkhoff, whose country holds the rotating EU presidency.
The reforms laid out by the European Commission are modelled on a Franco-German proposal for a snap-back mechanism that would apply to any country granted visa-free access, allowing the benefit to be suspended for six months in case of any problems.
The ministers agreed Friday that the commission could trigger the mechanism under circumstances including a surge in migrants illegally staying in the EU; difficulties in returning people under agreed readmission procedures; or threats to public security or order.
If a majority of member states notifies the commission accordingly, it must trigger the visa waiver mechanism, ministers said in a statement.
The proposal now requires the approval of the European Parliament to enter into effect. Once in place, it would significantly speed up and expand existing visa-free travel safeguards.
German Interior Minister Thomas De Maiziere said Friday that no new visa liberalization decisions should be taken before the snap-back mechanism is in place.
Georgia, Ukraine and Kosovo are also hoping to be granted visa-free access to Europe in the coming months. The EU has used the benefit to encourage democratic reforms in its neighbourhood.
The commission, the EU's executive, has urged member states to lift visa requirements on the three countries, as they have met all the bloc's benchmarks. But French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said Friday that the timing is not right.
"This subject cannot be dealt with in the coming weeks and months. That is not the wish of France," he said at the talks in Brussels with his EU counterparts.
"I think with this asylum crisis, the biggest since World War II, that it would not be the smartest thing to do," added Belgian Interior Minister Theo Francken. "There's criteria and there's timing. And timing in politics is very important," he noted.