Photographer: Chris McGrath/Getty Images

EU Parliament Raises the Rhetoric Over Turkey's Visa-Waiver Bid

  • Assembly members press Ankara to narrow terrorism legislation
  • Row threatens to scupper March deal on curbing refugee influx

The European Parliament added to the war of words with Turkey over its bid for visa-free travel to Europe, highlighting the risk that a hard-fought agreement with Ankara to curb the influx of Mideast refugees will collapse.

Members of the European Union assembly said Turkey must narrow the scope of its terrorism legislation to qualify for EU visa-free status. That is a prize the Turkish government sought in return for signing up to the mid-March migrant accord, which has stemmed Europe’s biggest refugee wave since World War II and eased domestic political pressure on leaders including German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has signaled he won’t bow to the European demand over terrorism legislation, citing terror threats in Turkey that his critics say are being used as cover to jail political opponents. Adding Turkey to a list of around 60 countries whose citizens benefit from hassle-free travel to Europe requires approval by EU governments and the 28-nation Parliament.

“The liberalization can only be granted if all of the criteria are fulfilled,” Mariya Gabriel, a Bulgarian member of the Christian Democrats, the EU Parliament’s biggest faction, said during a debate on Wednesday in Strasbourg, France. Tanja Fajon, a Slovenian member of the No. 2 Socialists, said: “Turkey is very important to the solution to the migration crisis, but this does not mean that we should be making promises to Turkey without ensuring that all the conditions are fulfilled.”

Migrant Flows

The EU-Turkey sparring is a test of geopolitical power that combines high politics, principles and pride. The migrant flows into Europe via Turkey over the past year have handed Erdogan leverage over the EU, which has lambasted him for cracking down on domestic dissenters and kept Turkey’s longstanding bid for membership of the bloc largely on hold.

Last Friday, when commenting on the EU call for Turkish terrorism-rule changes, Erdogan said “we are going our way and you go yours.” He also dared the bloc to “go make a deal with whoever you can.”

In a further sign of Ankara’s renewed confidence in dealing with the EU, Burhan Kuzu, a former adviser to Erdogan, said earlier on Wednesday that Turkey would send refugees to Europe should the EU Parliament make a “wrong decision” in the deliberations over visa-free status for Turkey.

“That is blackmail,” said Sophie in ’t Veld, a Dutch member of the EU Parliament’s Liberal group. She called Erdogan a “dictator.” Cecilia Wikstroem, a Swedish Liberal, said “something is rotten in this.”

Along with the reintroduction of internal European border checks that shut a migratory route north from Greece, the EU agreement with Ankara has caused a slump in refugee sea crossings from the Turkish coast to nearby Greek islands -- a route used since early 2015 by about 1 million people from war-torn nations such as Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. Arrivals in Greece fell to 3,462 last month from 26,971 in March and 57,066 in February, according to the United Nations refugee agency.

Under the March 18 pact, irregular migrants who enter the EU in Greece are sent back to Turkey and Syrian refugees in Turkish camps are resettled in Europe. As part of that accord, the EU’s national leaders pledged to remove visa requirements for Turks by the end of June at the latest provided Ankara fulfilled all the conditions. These range from passport security features to migration management.

The European Commission on May 4 submitted a proposal on EU visa-free status for Turkey, saying the country had made enough progress in meeting a total of 72 “benchmarks” to justify the initiative. The proposal came as Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, Ankara’s chief negotiator on the migrant deal, was on the verge of losing a power struggle with Erdogan and announcing a decision to step down.

The commission, the EU’s regulatory arm, identified five conditions left for Turkey to fulfill by mid-year. These relate to terrorism legislation as well as the fight against corruption, judicial cooperation with EU nations, deeper ties with European law-enforcement agency Europol and data protection.

The commission is working with Turkish officials on the fulfillment of the remaining requirements and intends to inform EU governments and the bloc’s Parliament of the results. The EU Parliament’s leadership has pledged to delay the assembly’s scrutiny of the proposed visa-free status until the commission provides a “written guarantee” that Turkey has fulfilled all the benchmarks.

“We have to remain optimistic that the Turkish authorities will give that final push before the end of June,” European Home Affairs Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos told the EU Parliament. “This agreement is beneficial for both sides.”

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