EU states agree to make it easier to limit visa-free travel

BRUSSELS (AP) — European Union nations agreed Friday to make it easier to suspend its visa waiver programs with some countries, just as Turkey is trying to secure visa-free travel for its citizens.

EU interior and migration ministers sealed an agreement on the emergency brake system during talks in Brussels. The so-called “suspension mechanism” would come into play to ensure security and if a country fails to respect its obligations. It is aimed at new visa waiver programs that are in the works for Georgia, Ukraine, Kosovo and Turkey.

The waivers would grant citizens of the four visa-free travel in Europe for business or leisure purposes for up to 90 days. But many European states are concerned by the prospect of opening the EU’s gates wider at a time when the bloc is struggling to cope with hundreds of thousands of refugees.

French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said that “we can’t allow visa liberalization to happen without any precautions, without a managed calendar or in a rush as some want to impose on us. So we have taken an extremely firm position.”

Ministers have been at pains to point out that the mechanism applies to all visa waiver countries so that Turkey does not feel targeted.

The EU has offered Turkey a visa waiver as incentive — along with up to 6 billion euros ($6.8 billion) for Syrian refugees and fast-track EU membership talks — to get it to stop migrants leaving for Europe and take back the thousands who have arrived in Greece from Turkey since March 20.

Dutch Migration Minister Klaas Dijkhoff, who chaired the meeting, said that “visa liberalization has great advantages for the EU and third countries. Yet we need an emergency brake for all visa free counties to make sure that visa liberalization cannot be abused.”

To address concerns, the new emergency brake provides more grounds for suspending the visa waiver, notably if a country fails to readmit people who left its territory but are not allowed to stay in Europe.

Permanent monitoring would be put in place to ensure compliance and the respect of the original criteria sought by the EU for the visa-free travel — 72 conditions in Turkey’s case.

A suspension would also be much faster to put into action because the threshold for halting visa waivers would be lower, Dijkhoff said.

EU lawmakers must also endorse the scheme for it to come into force.

While the number of migrants arriving in the Greek islands has dropped significantly since the agreement between Turkey and the EU came into effect, the EU believes that Ankara must do more.

“There’s still work to be done when it comes to processing people and giving them an individual assessment of their claim to asylum, and then getting people readmitted to Turkey,” said Dijkhoff.

Under the migration agreement, the EU pledged to grant a visa waiver to Turkey by June 30. But President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has rejected an EU demand to narrow the scope of Turkey’s anti-terror laws to end crackdowns on journalists and dissenters.

It appears that October might now be the earliest date by which Turkish citizens could be eligible for short-term visa-free visits to Europe.

“To get visa liberalization, it’s important that they change their terrorism law. Mr. Erdogan says he doesn’t want that, so that’s a problem, no?” said Belgium’s top migration official, Theo Francken.

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