The EU Commission might make concessions to Ankara on visa-free travel to save the migrant deal. Is the EU about to make an uneasy compromise that would erode its refugee pact with Turkey?
By Wednesday, Turkey must have met all 72 EU criteria to allow Turkish citizens visa-free travel to the EU beginning this summer. Wednesday is when the European Commission is scheduled to announce its recommendation on the scheme. Ankara had only met 62 criteria by last weekend.
If the Commission insists on Ankara meeting all benchmarks by Wednesday, visa-free travel would have to be postponed. In that case, the Turkish government has threatened to let migrants journey unhindered to Greece once again, or to refuse to accept deported refugees - a nightmare for European governments. While Turkish visa waivers technically have nothing to do with the refugee situation, Turkey made sure that the two are seen as linked to the pressure on Brussels.
Turkey has more leverage
The Commission will make the recommendation, says Yanis Emmanouilidis of the Brussels-based European Policy Center think tank. To save face, it could extend the deadline to mid-June to allow Turkey more time to meet the requirements and allow visa-free travel as of the end of June. "They urgently want to make headway because they know how important the relaxed visa regulations are for the EU refugee deal with Turkey," Emmanoulidis told DW.
Critics fear the Commission might also make concessions concerning the criteria. Commission deputy president, Frans Timmermans, has denied the EU would lower its standards: "They are clear."
However, Sophie in't Veld, a European lawmaker from the Netherlands, wonders "whether the Commission will be as strict in assessing Turkey's progress concerning the visa criteria as Timmermans announced." Other politicians have also warned of showing weakness and allowing Ankara a "discount;" that is, preferential treatment.
Several European governments have also voiced concerns that instead of refugees from the Mideast, the EU might face just as many Turkish Kurds applying for asylum once visa-free travel is launched.
A need for emergency brakes
For just that reason, the conservative European People's Party group (EPP) in the European Parliament is urging the addition of "emergency brakes." "We want Turkey as a partner, but we're not naive," chairman Manfred Weber told the "Passauer Neue Presse" newspaper. If Turkey doesn't meet the criteria on a permanent basis, "visa liberalization must be suspended."
The governments in Berlin and Paris have also pushed for the option of suspending the visa waiver. The possibility already exists for visa-free travel deals in general. In the case of Turkey it could be suspended for at least six months; for instance, if the number of Turkish citizens who enter the EU skyrockets, but then don't want to return to Turkey.
The EU might want to put on the brakes if the number of asylum applications rises that are unlikely to be granted, or if Turkey refuses to take back Turkish citizens who had wanted to stay in the EU. If even one of these conditions applies, the EU can suspend visa-free travel. Berlin and Paris say they want this mechanism to work at short notice, a demand the Commission supports.
Yanis Emmanoulidis is confident that Turkish visa-free travel won't trigger anything close to the surge of refugees Europe saw last year. The migrant deal may have put Turkey in a "stronger position than in the past," allowing Ankara to put on more pressure, but Turkey also needs the EU on an economic and political level, he says. "Turkey is navigating difficult political waters, so it needs friends in the EU."