A controversial deal aimed at stemming the tide of migrants and refugees making their way from Turkey into Europe is teetering on edge, as the architects of the agreement lock horns over an important component of the deal: visa-free travel for Turks.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan cautioned that the deal could stall if visa-free travel is not granted by the end of June.
Threatening to withhold further laws and regulations from passing Parliament and setting a deadline of June 30 for the European Union to take “steps in regards to visas,” Erdogan accused the bloc of “imposing new criteria every other day,” according to official state news agency Anadolu.
Visa-free travel in Europe has been a carrot dangled in front of Turkey ever since the country first began its bid for membership in the European Union. And it has been a cornerstone of the EU-Turkey refugee readmission agreement. But that agreement is now in jeopardy as the EU and Turkey quibble over the fine print which was supposed to have been ironed out in March.
For every Syrian sent back to Turkey under the plan, a vetted Syrian refugee would go from Turkey to Europe to be resettled, with a cap of 72,000 people. In return, the EU would give additional funding to refugee specific projects in Turkey and visa-free travel. The agreement has been controversial since its inception, with rights groups lambasting politicians for what they say is the peddling of refugee misery for political gain.
“It is a deal that can only be implemented with the hardest of hearts and a blithe disregard for international law,” Amnesty International said in April. The deal, however, has managed to make a noticeable dent in arrivals on Greek shores, according to European border agency Frontex.
“The drop in the number of arrivals on the Greek islands was dramatic. The total for all of April is well below the number of people we often saw reaching just the island of Lesbos on a daily basis during last year’s peak months,” said Frontex Executive Director Fabrice Leggeri in a statement.
In a bid to live up to European regulations, Turkey has pushed through laws and started implementing new regulations to harmonize its laws with Europe. Turkey will qualify for visa-free travel only after it meets 72 conditions by the European Union outlined across five categories, including document security, migration management, public order and security, fundamental rights and readmission of illegal migrants.
Turkey has met all but five of the 72 conditions, according to the latest progress report.
One particular sticking point has been the condition requiring Turkey to review and revise its anti-terror laws, which are considered too broad by European standards.
Critics argue the draconian terror laws have been used to silence dissent, leading to prosecution of journalists, academics and activists. Turkish officials have ruled out bringing the anti-terror law in line with that of Europe, arguing that the European standards would leave Turkey unable to protect itself from growing terror threats.
Turkey is in the middle of a battle against two challenging, yet different, terror threats.
Domestically, Turkey has been at war with a separatist Kurdish insurgency in the form of the PKK emboldened by wins in Syria. The group has largely been targeting security forces but has carried out attacks in population centers that have killed civilians. Internationally, Turkey is part of the coalition against ISIS and has seen the group successfully carry out suicide attacks tourism hot spots.