BRUSSELS (AP) — The European Union pressed ahead Wednesday with efforts to persuade Turkey to stop asylum seekers from reaching Europe and take back thousands more by offering Turkish citizens the prospect of visa-free travel within the bloc.
Mindful of Turkey's pivotal role in managing Europe's refugee crisis, the European Commission said Ankara has met all but five of the 72 criteria needed to end visa requirements. It invited member states and EU lawmakers to endorse the move by June 30, even though some conditions remain to be fulfilled.
"There is still work to be done as a matter of urgency, but if Turkey sustains the progress made, they can meet the remaining benchmarks," Commission Vice-President Frans Timmermans told reporters in Brussels.
Once endorsed, Turkish citizens would be able to travel for 90 days without a visa to all EU member countries — except for Britain and Ireland, which have provisions for opting out of such policies — and four members of the Schengen passport-free travel area: Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu praised the move, describing it as "not just a turning point for visa-free travel, it is also a new page in relations with the European Union."
The move is a central part of a package of incentives for Turkey — including up to 6 billion euros ($6.8 billion) in aid for Syrian refugees and fast-track EU membership talks — to better police its borders, particularly in the Aegean Sea, so migrants can no longer reach Greece. Tens of thousands of people have crossed the sea from Turkey to Greece and then moved northward through the Balkans.
That deal has raised legal and ethical questions, as European nations unable to agree among themselves about how to handle the refugee emergency chose instead to outsource it to Turkey, where almost 3 million refugees are staying, most of them people fleeing war in Syria. It also comes as concern grows about Turkey's commitment to human rights and free speech amid a crackdown on the media and dissent.
The prospect of visa-free travel was welcomed by Turks already in Europe. At his vegan bistro in Berlin, Turkish-born businessman Yusuf Atalay called it great news for families struggling to visit Germany — which has about 3 million people claiming Turkish roots — for weddings and other celebrations due to strict visa rules.
Atalay said he talked to his mother, who hoped the visa waiver would be implemented "so she can visit and see how we're living here — me and my family."
Turkey is demanding the visa waiver by June 30, and sees it as an important sign that Europeans are living up to their promises. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has warned the entire agreement will collapse if the EU reneges on any pledge.
First, though, Ankara must fulfill the final criteria. That means aligning Turkey's data protection laws with European standards, ensuring that its data protection authority is free from political influence, improving justice cooperation with all 28 EU member states, and changing its definition of what constitutes a terrorist and a terrorist act, which European officials consider too broad.
"In recent years, these anti-terrorist laws have been used in a brutal clampdown on Turkish and foreign journalists by the Turkish government," said Guy Verhofstadt, a liberal lawmaker in the European assembly. "As long as this remains the case, the European Parliament should not support this proposal for visa liberalization."
Once the visa proposal is endorsed, only Turkish citizens with new biometric passports — including facial and fingerprint data — would be allowed in, Timmermans said. Turkey is only due to start making the passports in June, meaning few people might be able to take advantage of the changes this year.
Separately, the Commission proposed that EU countries refusing to accept migrants under new proposals to overhaul the EU's failed asylum laws face fines — dubbed a "solidarity contribution" — of 250,000 euros ($285,000) for each person rejected.
The penalties are part of a new plan to more evenly share the burden of hosting hundreds of thousands of people fleeing conflicts and violence in places like Syria, with the current asylum system on the verge of collapse.
The plan still must be accepted by a large majority of member countries — about two-thirds under the bloc's qualified majority system — and EU lawmakers. The fine has proven to be controversial, with some countries already vehemently opposing the current EU proposal to share 160,000 refugees in Greece and Italy. Hungary has even moved to hold a referendum on the issue.
Czech Foreign Minister Lubomir Zaoralek described the proposal as an unpleasant surprise given that his country, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia reject mandatory refugee quotas imposed from Brussels. "It's unfortunate. It won't help anything," he said.
Under current EU laws, people seeking international protection in Europe must apply for asylum in the country where they first arrive. That effectively means Greece and Italy have been overburdened, and many of their EU partners have failed to help them cope.
The new plan would kick in automatically once a country comes under high migration pressure. Other member states would take in a share of any asylum seekers — not those trying to escape poverty or looking for jobs — calculated from each nation's population and economic strength based on gross domestic product. But members could choose not to take part for 12 months.
A new EU asylum agency would also be set up and be responsible for supervising the way the system is working.
Associated Press writers Raf Casert in Brussels, Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Karel Janicek in Prague, and Menelaos Hadjicostis in Nicosia, Cyprus, contributed to this report.