Ankara continues to fall short in its efforts to bring its human rights laws up to EU standards, putting hopes of reaching an agreement for visa-free travel for 80m Turks at risk, according to a draft of a European Commission report seen by the Financial Times.
Although the 10-page report, due to be released on Wednesday, says Turkey has met all but eight of 72 benchmarks required under the EU’s visa-waiver programme, the failure to revise Turkish law on terrorism and organised crime to protect “fundamental rights” is deemed “the most important benchmark” yet to be fulfilled.
“The Turkish authorities will need to make a concerted effort to address this benchmark without delay,” the report reads. It says Ankara is “invited” to “align Turkish legislation on terrorism” with EU law and Council of Europe guidelines, particularly “on the proportionality of action”. It also urges Ankara to establish an independent commission to inspect “possible violations of individual rights by law enforcement agencies”.
The rush to grant Turkey visa-free travel status in the EU’s Schengen zone by next month has emerged as the most politically combustible part of a controversial agreement with the EU reached in March which has helped halt the influx of refugees from Turkey into Greece.
As part of the deal to get Ankara to accept the return of thousands of refugees from the EU, European leaders promised the new visa-free travel regime as well as €6bn in aid and the reopening of talks on portions of Turkey’s EU membership application.
Although the agreement has been hailed by EU leaders as a success for bringing a halt to the thousands of migrants that were arriving on Greek islands every day, the prospect of allowing Turks to travel without visas in the EU’s Schengen zone has raised hackles in several EU capitals and provided new fodder for anti-EU populists.
On Monday, Nicholas Bay, general secretary of the far-right National Front party in France, called the move “irresponsible”, insisting that Mr Erdogan has fostered instability in Syria and “openly promoted the expansion” of the Islamic State terrorist group.
“The National Front denounces the passivity and submission of the ruling European authorities with regard to Turkey,” Mr Bay said. “If the exemption of visas for Turkish nationals is confirmed, Turkey will already have one foot in the European Union.”
Turkey has come under increasing criticism in the European Parliament and EU capitals for its human rights record, particularly after it arrested several prominent journalists for criticising the government. Ankara has also demanded Berlin prosecute a German satirist for mocking Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s president.
Still, the commission report gives Ankara high marks for meeting nearly all the 72 benchmarks, saying Turkish authorities have “further intensified their efforts” to meet the conditions.
“The Commission acknowledges the good progress made by the Turkish authorities thus far, and it encourages them to urgently step up these efforts to meet all requirements in order to obtain visa liberalisation by the end of June,” the report says.
EU officials cautioned that some of the wording in the report could be changed before it is presented on Wednesday. In addition, EU officials said Ankara took new measures last night to address one of the eight remaining benchmarks: allowing Cypriot citizens to travel to Turkey as any other EU national can.
A Turkish degree was signed to give visa-free travel to Cyprus and 10 other EU countries — a move that falls short of full recognition of the Nicosia government, but it could reduce the number of benchmarks that need to be fulfilled to seven by Wednesday’s announcement.
Despite criticism from the UN and some human rights groups over the refugee return deal, the report is full of praise for Turkey’s efforts to fulfil its end of the migration deal, giving Ankara credit for the drastic reduction in arrivals in Greece.
“Through actions in the area of border management, the Turkish authorities have managed to substantially reduce the number of persons irregularly crossing the Turkish territory to the Greek islands,” the report says.
Of the eight remaining requirements, the report says two are nearly impossible to accomplish by the June deadline: upgrading existing biometric passports to include security features that are in line with EU standards, and sections of the EU-Turkey deal that require Ankara to strike agreements with other countries to send back illegal migrants. In both areas, Brussels says it is impractical to require Turkey to meet those benchmarks in time and urges a qualified waiver.
Additional reporting by Anne-Sylvaine Chassany in Paris
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