Brussels backs visa-free travel for Turks

Volunteers help migrants and refugees on a dingy as they arrive at the shore of the northeastern Greek island of Lesbos, after crossing the Aegean sea from Turkey on Sunday, March 20, 2016. In another incident two Syrian refugees have been found dead on a boat on the first day of the implementation of an agreement between the EU and Turkey on handling the new arrivals. (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)©AP

Migrants arrive in Greece after crossing from Turkey earlier this year

The European Commission has recommended Turks be granted visa-free travel in the EU despite Ankara’s failure to revise its terrorism legislation to ensure it does not lead to the prosecution of peaceful protesters and journalists.

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Frans Timmermans, the commission vice-president, who has overseen the EU’s response to the refugee crisis, said Turkey had fulfilled all but five of the 72 benchmarks required to be admitted to the visa-waiver regime for the EU’s passport-free Schengen zone. This was “impressive progress” that warranted Brussels’ support.

While Mr Timmermans acknowledged there were still measures Ankara must take “as a matter of urgency” before a June deadline, he said it was wrong to deny Turkey the travel agreement because it would further alienate a government that appeared to be drifting away from the West.

“In the past years of not engaging with Turkey, of just shouting over the fence at each other, what has that done for human rights, the rule of law, democracy and the freedom of media in Turkey?” he said. “Nothing; it’s only worsened the situation. We need to engage with them.”

Granting visa-free travel to Turkey was one of the most controversial concessions granted to Ankara as part of a deal to convince Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish president, to clamp down on the influx of refugees into the EU. The EU has also promised €6bn in aid and reopening negotiations on some elements of Turkey’s EU membership application.

Ankara has already said publicly that if it is not granted the visa waiver by next month, it will no longer live up to its end of the refugee deal, which EU officials credit with nearly ending migrant arrivals on remote Greek islands.

The travel deal has strong backing in Germany, but several other EU members are skittish about the concession — particularly in France, where President François Hollande has faced withering criticism from the surging rightwing National Front party over the policy.

Bruno Le Maire, one of the contenders for the centre-right presidential nomination said on Wednesday that he “opposed” a decision made “in a hurry and without consulting national parliaments”- echoing views expressed by Nicolas Sarkozy, chairman of the Republicains party, as well as by Marine Le Pen, the National Front leader.

“Liberalising the visa regime means granting freedom of movement to Turkish citizens in Europe,” Mr Le Maire, a former agriculture minister, said. “In case of political or economic crisis in Turkey, will our societies have to bear the brunt of a potential influx of Turkish citizens?”

The programme must still clear both national ministers — who have to approve Turkey’s admission to the scheme by a weighted majority of member states — and the European parliament, where there were already signs the scheme may be in trouble.

Manfred Weber, a conservative German MEP who heads the parliament’s largest party group, broke from his political ally Chancellor Angela Merkel, saying it was wrong for the commission to back the scheme.

“There must be no watering down of the rules on visa liberalisation for Turkey,” Mr Weber said. “It is hard to understand why the commission is now proposing visa liberalisation despite Turkey not meeting all the criteria.”

According to a detailed assessment of Turkey’s progress, one of the most important unfulfilled requirements is the change in the country’s terrorism laws, which define terrorism in “an overly broad” manner that has allowed authorities to round up demonstrators and journalists for simply criticising the government.

“If terrorist offences are not defined precisely and relate to crimes of a significant level of severity, they may entail serious restrictions upon human rights and fundamental freedoms,” the commission assessment said.

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“Participants in demonstrations have been convicted for being members of a criminal or a terrorist organisation even though a link with the organisation was not demonstrated,” the report said. “The recurring arrests and prosecutions of journalists and academics on terrorist-related charges, including the provision on ‘making propaganda for a terrorist organisation’ have a detrimental effect on freedom of expression and lead to self-censorship.”

Ankara has also failed to live up to anti-corruption commitments, including passing legislation that would limit the ability of political parties to raise cash from wealthy, politically connected businesses and ensure judicial independence.

Additional reporting by Anne-Sylvaine Chassany in Paris

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