Photographer: Chris McGrath/Getty Images

Turkey Faces United EU Front in Row Over Visa-Free Travel

  • European governments say Ankara must alter terrorism law
  • Standoff threatens March accord on stemming refugee influx

European Union governments showed Turkey a united front in the battle over visa-free travel, insisting Ankara narrow its terrorism legislation to qualify for the perk.

The stance by European home-affairs ministers underscores a threat to an EU-Turkey agreement that has stemmed Europe’s biggest refugee wave since World War II and eased domestic political pressure on leaders including German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Turkey sought EU visa-free status in return for signing up to the mid-March deal, under which irregular migrants who enter the EU in Greece are sent back to Turkey and Syrian refugees in Turkish camps are resettled in Europe.

The EU has said Turks can win visa-free status by mid-year as long as the Turkish government fulfills five remaining criteria -- including on the terrorism law -- out of a total of 72. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has signaled he won’t bow to the European demand over terrorism legislation, citing terror risks in Turkey that his critics say are being used as cover to jail political opponents.

“We have a clear statement and a clear agreement on visa liberalization: it goes through if you meet the criteria,” Klaas Dijkhoff, migration minister of the Netherlands, current holder of the 28-nation EU’s rotating presidency, told reporters on Friday in Brussels after chairing a meeting with his counterparts from the bloc. “We will see if, over the next few weeks, the criteria are met. If so, we will go ahead. If not, well, then not. It’s as simple as that.”

Migrant Flows

The standoff pits EU political principles against Turkish geopolitical power. Migrant flows into Europe via Turkey during 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.

Along with the reintroduction of internal European border checks that shut a migratory route north from Greece, the March 18 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 3,650 last month from 26,971 in March and 57,066 in February, according to the United Nations refugee agency.

On May 6, 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.”

Erdogan’s position poses a “problem,” said Theo Francken, Belgium’s state secretary for asylum and migration.

“It’s clear that all the conditions have to be fulfilled,” Francken told reporters at Friday’s EU meeting. “To get visa liberalization, it’s important that they change their terrorism law.”

Turkish Threats

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 European Parliament. Last week, the assembly held a debate in which Erdogan was labeled a “dictator” and Turkish threats to back out of the refugee accord should the EU refuse Turks visa-free travel were called blackmail.

The European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, is working with Turkish officials on the fulfillment of the remaining requirements for visa-free status and intends to inform EU governments and the bloc’s Parliament of the results.

Dijkhoff signaled that room to maneuver might exist behind Erdogan’s hard-line rhetoric, saying “in between decisions being made and agreements being reached, there’s a lot said and done.”

“It’s also happened in the past and then we also reached agreements, we also came to solutions,” he said. “So I’m not getting nervous.”

In their meeting on Friday, anticipating the possible travel reward for Turkey, the home-affairs ministers endorsed a commission proposal that would make it easier for EU countries to trigger a suspension mechanism under the European visa-liberalization regime.

Such a mechanism allows for the temporary re-imposition of visa requirements on visitors from a particular non-EU country when they overstay or make unfounded asylum applications. The plan to make the suspension of visa-free status easier to invoke also needs the approval of the EU Parliament, which has yet to act.

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