Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said on Tuesday (10 May) that he wanted the European Union to grant Turks visa-free travel to the passport-free Schengen area by October at the latest. The previous deadline, also cited by the Commission, was the end of June.
“The promise that was made was for the month of October this year,” Erdoğan said in a televised speech. “I hope they will keep the promise that they made and close this issue by October at the latest.”
Erdoğan’s outgoing Prime Minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, had previously suggested June as the deadline, but the comments by the president indicate he expects Brussels to come good on its commitment.
The European Commission last week recommended that Turks enjoy visa-free travel but Turkey must still meet five more benchmarks to complete the EU’s list of 72 criteria.
Crucial among these are changes to anti-terror law as well as protection of personal data.
But Erdoğan reaffirmed a warning last week that Ankara had no intention of changing its anti-terror legislation to placate Brussels.
In apparent reference to tents set up by Kurdish activists near the EU Council building in Brussels in March, he asked why “terrorists” were allowed to pitch camp outside the building.
“First give an answer to that,” before Turkey examines its anti-terror laws, said Erdoğan.
The promise of visa-free travel is a key pillar of the landmark March deal between Ankara and the European Union under which Turkey would help reduce the flow of migrants to the bloc in exchange for incentives.
The deal was championed by Davutoğlu and his scheduled departure from the post of premier after a 22 May ruling party congress has sparked concerns over whether Turkey will honour the accord.
Analysts have warned the problem of the anti-terror legislation – with Turkey in the throes of a major campaign against Kurdish militants – risks blocking the deal with the EU.
The deal has already seen the number of refugees crossing the Aegean from Turkey to Greece fall sharply.
“Pardon me but we are going our way and you can go yours,” Erdoğan had told the EU Friday (6 May) in remarks likely to have caused considerable alarm in Brussels.
Another key part of the deal is a transfer of €3 billion for the estimated 2.7 million Syrian refugees in Turkey, but Erdoğan has complained that the funds had yet to arrive.
Parliament speaks out
MEPs on 9 May issued a stern warning that Turkey should not expect a visa waiver if it has not fulfilled all criteria.
Civil Liberties Committee MEPs in a debate with the EU Commission pointed to statements that Ankara will not change its antiterrorist legislation – one of the pending requirements – and voiced worries about the political situation in the country following the resignation of Davutoğlu, as well as threats to press freedom and human rights. Cypriot MEPs also reiterated that Turkey does not recognise their country.
Tensions had already been surging between Erdoğan and the West over accusations the president was imposing a creeping authoritarianism over the country he has ruled as premier from 2003 and as president from 2014.
On Monday (9 May), MEPs were also presented with the opinion of the Parliament´s legal service on the legal aspects of the EU-Turkey deal on migration. Since the agreement was concluded on 18 March, MEPs have voiced concerns about its compatibility with EU and international law and have complained about the lack of an opportunity to subject it to democratic scrutiny.
The legal experts said that the March statement merely reflects a political commitment by the two parties and that it can in no way be considered an international agreement, since it is not legally binding. They underlined that all legal changes stemming from this deal will have to follow the usual procedures, which in some cases involve Parliament, such as visa liberalisation or disbursing funds for assisting refugees in Turkey.
Many MEPs protested over what they saw as a “shady” deal with serious implications, which was reached at the highest EU level but left Parliament aside.
The visa deal depends on the ratification by the European Parliament and of some national parliaments who would also like to have their say.
Following reports that the EU was working on a ‘Plan B’ and considering giving the billions it promised to Turkey to Greece instead, in case the deal agreed with Ankara to stem the refugee flows collapses, a European Commission spokesperson said yesterday there was only one plan, the ‘Plan A’.