Turkey visa-free deal gets conditional EU backing
BRUSSELS - The EU on Wednesday gave conditional backing to visa-free travel for Turks and unveiled an overhaul of its asylum system under which member states that refuse to take a quota of refugees will be fined.
In its latest bid to tackle the biggest migration crisis since World War II, the European Commission proposed making countries pay a "solidarity contribution" of 250,000 ($290,000) euros per refugee they decline to take.
Turkey has threatened to tear up a March agreement to take back migrants from Europe if the EU fails to keep its promise to allow Turkish citizens to travel without visas to the passport-free Schengen area by the end of June.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said visa-free travel could herald a "new page" in Ankara's relations with the bloc.
European Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans said the EU's executive arm would recommend that, if Ankara meets the remaining criteria, the 28 member states and the European Parliament should approve the Turkish visa plan.
"There is no free ride here, and we are clear about what remains to be done," Timmermans told reporters, in response to criticism from several EU states that the deal is too soft on Turkey's rights record.
Turkey must complete five more benchmarks by the end of next month to complete the EU's list of 72 -- which include biometric passports and human rights issues -- despite making "impressive progress" in recent weeks, Timmermans added.
Under the plan, Turkish citizens would be allowed to make 90-day visits to Europe's 26-country Schengen passport-free area for business or tourism without needing a visa. Britain and Ireland are not part of Schengen.
"The EU must stick to its promise," Cavusoglu said in televised comments on Wednesday ahead of the announcement in Brussels.
"Our citizens deserve visa-free travel."
Also on Wednesday the Commission unveiled its long-awaited proposal for replacing its outdated asylum system with a mechanism for relocating refugees in a crisis.
The so-called Dublin rules currently in force have been criticised as obsolete and unfair to countries like Greece, where most of the migrants entered the bloc last year.
Under the Dublin rules, migrants seeking asylum must lodge their application in the country where they first arrived, and should be returned there if they try to move elsewhere in the bloc.
Timmermans said Dublin was "simply was not designed for situations such as these" when the EU has been overwhelmed by more than 1.25 million refugees from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere since the start of 2015.
He said countries that show they temporarily cannot take any asylum seekers under the mechanism should show "financial solidarity" with states that do take in refugees.
The Commission set the figure at 250,000 euros.
Since the EU-Turkey deal came into force on March 20, numbers of arrivals in Greece have dropped dramatically.
Ankara has agreed to take back all migrants arriving in the Greek islands, on the condition that the EU resettle one Syrian refugee from camps in Turkey for every Syrian refugee that Turkey accepts from Greece.
The EU also agreed to speed up Turkey's long-stalled membership bid in addition to promising visa liberalisation.
But many EU states still have concerns about the legality of the deal and the human rights situation in Turkey, where an increasing number of journalists and critics of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan have been prosecuted.
The Commission further announced a six-month extension of border controls in the Schengen zone, which have been reintroduced in some places as a result of the migrant crisis and recent terror attacks in Paris and Brussels.
Germany, France, Austria, Denmark and Sweden requested the extension, saying the border situation remains "extremely volatile".
Since 2015 several countries in the Schengen zone have reintroduced border controls due to the migrant crisis -- effectively suspending its principle of border-free travel.
EU rules say countries can reintroduce border controls for up to two years, in periods of up to six months at a time, in exceptional circumstances.
The EU earlier this year published a "roadmap" for the restoration of the normal functioning of Schengen "by the end of the year".