Turkey must meet all criteria of a migrant deal before travel rules for its citizens are relaxed, a top EU official says. Ankara has threatened to ditch the deal if visa-free travel for Turks is not introduced by June.
The European Union would not back down on the criteria it has set in a migrant deal with Turkey and insisted they be fulfilled before visa-free travel to the bloc for Turkish citizens was introduced, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said on Tuesday.
"Visa liberalization is a matter of criteria. The criteria will not be watered down in the case of Turkey," he told the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, Europe's leading human rights organization.
His remarks came a day after Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu warned that Turkey would not need to keep its side of the deal if the EU failed to relax travel rules for Turkish citizens traveling to the bloc by June.
The EU has said that Turkey has so far fully met just 19 of 72 criteria for the visa waiver contained in the deal, which sees Turkey obliged to prevent migrants and refugees from leaving its shores by boat or other illegal routes for Europe and to take back all those who do manage to reach the 28-nation bloc in that way.
In return, the EU has pledged, in addition to liberalizing visa rules for Turkish citizens, to provide more funding for refugees staying in Turkey and to revive long-stalled EU accession talks with Ankara.
Davutoglu said only 17 of the criteria for the visa waiver had yet to be met by Ankara, and that he expected the requirements to be completed by May.
However, one criterion in particular might prove a stumbling block: The EU wants assurances from Ankara that nationalities other than Syrian will also be granted effective access to asylum procedures once they have been returned to Turkey. At present, Turkey is offering protection only to refugees from neighboring Syria, meaning that the EU would be in breach of international law if it returned non-Syrian asylum-seekers to the country.
Turkey has voiced concern at the requirement, saying that it could encourage even more refugees and migrants to come into the country, which is already hosting some 2.5 million refugees from Syria's civil war - more than any other single country.
Some states in the EU also object to Turkish citizens being granted visa-free travel to the block, saying that they fear it could trigger more Muslim migration to Europe, which is already facing the largest migrant influx in decades.
The deal with Turkey has been criticized by several rights groups, who among other things slam the country's human rights record. However, it has led to a sharp fallin the number of daily arrivals from Turkish soil, after more than 1.1 million refugees and migrants reached the EU in 2015.
tj/msh (Reuters, dpa)