European Parliament chief: Visa deal with Turkey on hold until summer

The president of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, said Wednesday he saw no chance for an agreement on visa-free access to the European Union for Turkish citizens by July, saying Turkey has not met the conditions.

The visas are part of a wider EU-Turkey deal on stemming migration flows to the bloc. Ankara has warned that its implementation of measures to control refugee flows hinges on access to Europe for its citizens. Turkey has been a major gateway country for migrants.

European demands for changes to Turkey's anti-terrorism laws, which the bloc wants trimmed from their current wide parameters, have become the latest obstacle to an already fraught deal. Initially the sides had hoped for closure this summer.

A key advisor to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Burhan Kuzu, this week cautioned that if Europe's parliament rejects the visa-free access, then "we will send the refugees" to the bloc. Erdogan says he wants the visa deal wrapped up by October.

In an interview with German radio broadcaster Deutschlandfunk, Schulz said the EU's parliament would "absolutely" not begin consultations when Ankara has not fulfilled the conditions for visa-free access.

He had therefore not passed the corresponding bill on to the responsible justice committee, as Turkey has not fulfilled five of 72 conditions, Schulz said.

"It is not only a question of quantity, but quality, and as far as quality goes, two of the most essential prerequisites - data protection and anti-terrorism laws - have apparently not only not been fulfilled, but not even approached," Schulz said.

The parliament president later met with Turkey's minister for EU affairs, Volkan Bozkir, in the French city of Strasbourg. Schulz said after the meeting that there was "not yet a solution" to unblock the visa file and spoke of a "very difficult situation."

"All the agreements we have achieved until now - built on confidence, goodwill, taking responsibility and also taking political risks - are facing a very dangerous moment," Bozkir said. "We are trying to save the [migration] package."

But he added that changing Turkey's anti-terrorism laws is "completely impossible" at this moment, pointing to recent terrorist attacks in the country.

Bozkir also told local broadcaster NTV that Turkey's laws already comply with European standards.

Critics say, however, that the anti-terrorism laws have been used to crack down on political opponents and journalists critical of the government.

"Our impression is that in the frame of application of anti-terror rules, the scope and the interpretation is so far-reaching that we think that some of the measures are touching ... for example the freedom of expression and of media," Schulz said.

Turkey ranks 151 out of 180 countries on the Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index while critics accuse Erdogan of becoming increasingly authoritarian and seeking to consolidate his grip on power.

Schulz called on Erdogan to relent on the anti-terrorism laws, saying that for the amendment to pass in October, Ankara needed to begin consultations immediately.

The row over visa-free access could put at risk the agreement struck between the EU and Turkey on stemming migration flows to Europe, as the bloc deals with the largest number of people on the move in decades.

Turkey, over the past two months, has cracked down on smugglers bringing migrants to Europe by boat, after years that the Turkish coastline was used to reach nearby Greek islands, which are part of the EU.

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