EU set to approve curbs on visa-free travel amid Turkey debate

EU interior ministers are expected Friday to approve a mechanism 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 efforts to grant Turkish citizens visa-free access to Europe in the coming months, 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.

The system proposed by the European Commission comes after Germany and France floated the idea last month of 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.

German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere described the system as an "emergency brake," while Dutch Migration Minister Klaas Dijkhoff said it would help get a grip when "unexpected things happen."

It would be triggered by: a substantial increase in people from the partner country illegally staying in an EU state; a surge in requests for asylum or residence permits; or threats to public security or order, de Maiziere said Friday.

Meanwhile, Turkey must still overcome hurdles to be granted visa-free access to the EU - notably a demand by Brussels that Ankara tightens its definition of terrorism, amid concerns that this has been used to justify a crackdown on the media and government opposition.

Turkish President Reccep Tajip Erdogan has so far refused to budge on the issue.

Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn said it would be hard to succeed on the visa issue unless Turkey takes a step towards the EU, while noting that the bloc could not sacrifice human rights for the sake of the migration deal.

The agreement, struck in March, allows for migrants crossing from Turkey to the Greek islands to be sent back. It has already led to a sharp drop in the number of arrivals in Greece.

The ministers are also due Friday to discuss visa liberalization for Georgia, Ukraine and Kosovo. The EU has used the benefit to encourage democratic reforms in its neighbourhood.

The commission, the EU's executive, has said that all three countries have met the conditions to be granted visa-free access. But the move is controversial, after last year's migration surge into Europe prompted a populist backlash.

"I think with this asylum crisis, the biggest since World War II, that it would not be the smartest thing to do," Belgian Interior Minister Theo Francken said Friday. "There's criteria and there's timing. And timing in politics is very important," he added.

Last update: Fri, 24/06/2016 - 08:49

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