Turkey has agreed to abolish visa restrictions for all European Union citizens, including Greek Cypriots, passing one of the last remaining hurdles for it to secure visa-free access to Europe for its own nationals.
The Turkish cabinet late on Monday approved waiving visas for visitors from all 28 EU member states once Europe relaxes its own visa requirements for Turks, according to a decision published in the country’s Official Gazette.
Although the visa waiver will apply to Greek Cypriots, a Turkish official told Reuters that it did not amount to Turkish recognition of Cyprus.
Liberalising visa rules for Turkey, a Muslim country of 79mn people, is a contentious issue among EU states, but Brussels is pushing ahead to keep a migration accord in place that should help ease Europe’s worst migration crisis since World War II.
The European Commission is expected to declare today that Turkey has broadly met the criteria for visa liberalisation and to ask EU governments and the European Parliament to approve the decision by the end of June.
“With this decree, Turkey has fulfilled one more of the important benchmarks for visa liberalisation,” European Commission spokesman Margaritas Schinas told a daily briefing in Brussels.
One of the biggest obstacles in Turkey’s relations with the EU is Ankara’s refusal to recognise EU member Cyprus, the Mediterranean island divided for four decades between the Turkish-controlled north, recognised only by Ankara, and the Greek Cypriot south, which has international recognition.
“This doesn’t mean the recognition of Cyprus. If the EU abolishes visas for Turkish citizens, then we will also abolish visas for the remaining EU countries,” the Turkish official said on condition of anonymity because the full deal has not yet been finalised. “Right now, Greek Cypriots can already travel to Turkey, but we are issuing their visa on a separate paper. With this new arrangement they won’t need a visa.”
Cyprus would wait for the assessment review of the European Commission today before making any comment, government spokesman Nikos Christodoulides told the Cyprus News Agency.
Nordic foreign ministers meeting in Finland said it was important that Turkey reached all 72 criteria before visa-free travel for Turks could be allowed.
“It is an important deal, we need it in Europe. But we must be strict in that sense, that when we have agreed on those benchmarks, they should be fulfilled,” Finnish Foreign Minister Timo Soini, head of the nationalist Finns party, told a news conference.
“The Commission will put forward a plan to include Turkey in the list of countries exempted from visas,” a European source told AFP, adding that “only 64 out of the 72 criteria are fulfilled” and that the offer, therefore, remains conditional.
Turkey has to meet a list of 72 criteria – ranging from biometric passports to respect for human rights – that were set when Brussels and Ankara first talked about 90-day visa-free travel to the Schengen area.
Turkey has pressed the EU to respect its promises over what Ankara regards as its big win from the deal which was signed at a summit on March 18.
But Germany and France have proposed an emergency brake – or “snap back mechanism” – under which it could halt visa-free travel if large numbers of Turks stay in the EU illegally or if there are a large number of asylum applications by Turks.
The EU struck the deal with Turkey to send back all “irregular” migrants who arrive in Greece after March 20 and are turned down for asylum, in a bid to halt the mass migration which has created enormous strain in Europe.
In exchange, the EU will resettle one Syrian refugee from camps in Turkey for every Syrian that Turkey takes back from the Greek islands, the aim being to discourage people from crossing to Greece in the first place.
The accord is awash with legal and moral concerns, and critics have accused the EU of sacrificing its values and overlooking Turkey’s growing crackdown on free speech in order to secure the deal.
Today the EU will also allow countries to extend border controls in the Schengen area as a result of the migrant crisis and recent terror attacks.
Germany, France, Austria, Denmark and Sweden requested the extension, saying the border situation remains “extremely volatile”.
Since 2015 several countries in the 26-nation Schengen zone have reintroduced border controls due to the migrant crisis – effectively suspending its principle of border-free travel.
European sources said the Commission was to approve the measure in line with its so-called “roadmap” for the restoration of the normal functioning of Schengen “by the end of the year”.
EU rules say countries can reintroduce border controls for up to two years, in periods of up to six months at a time, in exceptional circumstances.
Also today the EU is expected to unveil an overhaul of its asylum rules to more fairly share responsibility for migrants and refugees arriving in Europe.
The existing Dublin rules have been criticised as obsolete and unfair to countries like Greece, where most of the 1.25mn Syrian, Iraqi, Afghan and other migrants entered the bloc last year
Under those rules, migrants seeking asylum must lodge their application in the country where they first arrived, and should be returned there if they try to move elsewhere in the bloc.
The Commission is expected to propose a special mechanism whereby refugees and migrants can be relocated to other countries if a crisis is declared – for example in Greece.
The Financial Times reported that countries that do not take their share could be fined €250,000 per person that they refuse to accept.
But the EU is expected to shun a complete overhaul of the Dublin rules.
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