Turkey has signed a deal on immigrants with the European Union. In return for talks on visa-free travel to the EU for Turkish citizens, it allows member countries to send back illegal immigrants who enter via Turkey.
The agreement signed on Monday indicates a warming of the previously cool relationship between Turkey and the EU, with the former refusing to sign any deal, while the EU would not commit to negotiations on a visa-free agreement in return.
But with EU Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom laying out a commitment to realize visa-free travel for Turkish citizens in 2017 at the earliest, a pact was signed on Monday.
"A new process in Turkish-EU relations is beginning," Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in a speech at the ceremony in the Turkish capital, Ankara. "With our signatures today, the European doors are being opened for visa-free travel by Turkish citizens.
"If EU visas are abolished, neither Turkey nor EU member countries will experience the slightest problem ... We are coming to take on a burden, not to be a burden," he said.
In return, the EU wants Turkey, which borders both Europe and Asia, to take back thousands of illegal immigrants who have crossed its borders into Greece.
"The cooperation between the European Union and Turkey has made a significant step forward. We have started two initiatives in parallel which will boost the relations between Turkey and the European Union and bring benefits for their citizens," Malmstrom said in a statement.
Talks on Turkey's candidacy for the EU were reignited in November after a hiatus of 40 months. They had been due to re-open in June but were delayed in response to the Turkish government's handling of mass street protests.
Turkey has been seeking to become an EU member for 26 years, but sticking points have arisen over its relationship with Cyprus and opposition from both Germany and France.
With Turkey on a major route for illegal migration from Africa, Asia and the Middle East, there are concerns about widening the EU's borders by granting it a place in the bloc. But in positives for Turkey, Erdogan will visit the EU in Brussels in January and France's President Francois Hollande is due to pay a visit to Turkey soon after.
ph/tj (Reuters, AFP, dpa)