Ankara parliament suspension halts passage of laws needed to win European support for visa-free travel for Turks. A key deadline looks increasingly likely to be missed in plans to grant Turkish citizens visa-free travel in the EU as part of a vital migration deal, after fighting in the parliament in Ankara and a stern warning of no special favours from Brussels. Brawling between ruling party and pro-Kurdish MPs late on Wednesday resulted in Turkey’s parliament being suspended until Monday, halting work on laws the country needs to pass if the European commission is to recommend the controversial visa-waiver scheme to member states in a decision due next Wednesday. The deputy head of the commission, Frans Timmermans, reiterated on Thursday that the EU executive would not soften the 72 conditions Turkey must meet to ensure visa-free travel, a key part of the controversial agreement aiming to stem the flow of migrants into the union.
“We will not play around with those benchmarks; the onus is on Turkey. They say they can do it,” Timmermans told the European parliament, adding that recent curbs on media freedoms and human rights in Turkey did not necessarily bode well for fresh discussions on Turkey’s eventual membership of the EU – another component of the migrant deal. “If they want to come close to the European Union so badly, let them prove that they can,” the former Dutch foreign minister said. “The distance between us and Turkey is not decreasing, it is increasing, because of human rights, the media and what is happening in civil society.” The commission has said it will announce on 4 May whether it believes member states should agree to grant visa-free travel to Turkish citizens by the end of June as part of the deal under which Ankara has agreed to take back refugees and migrants who reach the Greek islands from Turkey.
But with governments under pressure to curb immigration, the prospect of lifting visa restrictions on 75 million Turks has aroused strong opposition in some member states. Both France and Germany have reportedly proposed incorporating an “emergency brake” in the Turkish scheme – and in similar visa waiver schemes being discussed for Georgians and Ukrainians – to give the EU a quick and legal way to suspend them in the event of an unexpectedly large influx. The EU has previously said Turkey fully meets only about half the 72 criteria, which include civil liberties guarantees. A report late last month by the European Stability Initiative, a thinktank monitoring Ankara’s progress, suggested there had been no movement at all on 12 of the conditions. Senior Turkish officials, however, have insisted the country will meet “almost all” the conditions by next week’s deadline, and Ankara has repeatedly made clear that the lifting of visa restrictions is a non-negotiable part of the migration deal.
Even if the commission recommends the visa-waiver scheme, there is no guarantee that the European parliament will support it. MEPs in Brussels have warned conditions such as “the right to liberty and security, to a fair trial and freedom of expression, and of assembly and association” are difficult to square with recent Turkish court cases – and complaints abroad – about people accused of insulting the president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.nSome analysts have warned the whole migration deal – championed in particular by the German chancellor, Angela Merkel – could end up collapsing unless Turkey can convincingly address these fundamental human rights and rule-of-law questions, leaving the commission between a rock and a hard place. Ignoring MEPs’ concerns could risk the visa-waiver scheme being rejected by parliament – while telling Turkey it has not met all the necessary conditions would see Ankara withdrawing form the migration deal altogether. Timmermans stressed the agreement with Turkey was essential to slow the uncontrolled influx of migrants and refugees, and said a Turkish visa-waiver programme could improve, not weaken, European security because Turks would be obliged to use machine-readable, biometric passports.