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At stake is a controversial but hard-won deal on addressing the migrant crisis which has brought more than 1 million refugees into the EU.
Turkey's progress in recent weeks could be taken as a sign that the country can up its game in a short time. Critics insist visa-liberalization is an unwarranted reward for a country moving increasingly away from democratic values including freedom of the press and freedom of expression.
When it comes to EU-Turkey relations, the only metric that appears to matter is how the country handles the migrant crisis. Turkey, home to 2.7 million Syrian refugees, has agreed to crack down on smuggling networks operating in the Aegean Sea and take back any migrant who landed in Greece after March 20. In April, Davutoglu threatened to call off the deal if visa rules aren't relaxed for Turks by June. Europe, as a principal trading partner of Turkey and provider of three-quarters of foreign investment in Turkey, could push back but appears reluctant to do so. Merkel has been a key defender of the EU-Turkey deal, which rights groups criticize as immoral and borderline illegal.
Human rights groups have protested the propensity of Turkish prosecutors to level terrorist charges against government critics. The European Commission is also calling on Turkey to conclude "an operational agreement with Europol" and offer "effective judicial cooperation in criminal matters" to EU member states. EU Affairs Minister Volkan Bozkir interpreted Wednesday's decision as a sign Turkey has already met the 72 criteria and was upbeat on the likelihood of endorsement by the EU parliament and council, noting that the decision required a qualified majority, not unanimity.
ISTANBUL (AP) a€” Visa-free travel to Europe may be finally within Turkey's grasp, but the remaining benchmarks it must meet by June are not easy hurdles to clear. The Associated PressTents set on the tracks of a train station are framed by a fence at the Greek northern point of Idomeni, Greece, Tuesday, May 3, 2016. 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. Once endorsed, Turkish citizens would be able to travel for 90 days without a visa to all EU member countries a€” except for Britain and Ireland, which have provisions for opting out of such policies a€” and four members of the Schengen passport-free travel area: Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland. The move is a central part of a package of incentives for Turkey a€” including up to 6 billion euros ($6.8 billion) in aid for Syrian refugees and fast-track EU membership talks a€” to better police its borders, particularly in the Aegean Sea, so migrants can no longer reach Greece. 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. Turkey is demanding the visa waiver by June 30, and sees it as an important sign that Europeans are living up to their promises.
Once the visa proposal is endorsed, only Turkish citizens with new biometric passports a€” including facial and fingerprint data a€” would be allowed in, Timmermans said. Separately, the Commission proposed that EU countries refusing to accept migrants under new proposals to overhaul the EU's failed asylum laws face fines a€” dubbed a "solidarity contribution" a€” 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 a€” about two-thirds under the bloc's qualified majority system a€” and EU lawmakers.

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.
Under current EU laws, people seeking international protection in Europe must apply for asylum in the country where they first arrive. The new plan would kick in automatically once a country comes under high migration pressure. 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. John Irvine reports from Istanbul on the day the EU approves visa-free travel for Turkish people inside Europe's passport-free Schengen area. The visa deal was in return for Turkey agreeing to take back migrants who crossed the Aegean Sea to Greece. For the Syrians who gather daily outside a central Istanbul train station, there’s a sad irony in Turkey’s visa-waiver deal with the EU.
Freedom to go to Europe is the Turkish people’s reward for keeping the refugees trapped here. And when it’s all boiled down that is the choice European leaders were faced with – open the door to Turkish tourists and business people, who just want to visit, or, face the prospect of another flood of Syrians, who want to stay.
There’s no doubt the migrant crisis was the catalyst for the EU to soften on some of its benchmarks – giving Turkey the green light before it has done more in relation to the treatment of minorities; human rights and freedom of expression.
His ‘crime’ was to exclusively report that Turkey was delivering weapons to rebel forces in neighbouring Syria. Monday saw a punch-up in the Turkish parliament over a proposal to withdraw immunity of prosecution from MPs. Those in power want immunity to be taken away so Kurdish MPs can be prosecuted on terrorism charges for their support of the PKK. Ankara has made clear that if visa-free travel doesn’t become a reality it will open the flood gates again. Last year, when Turkey was a stepping stone, rather than the end of the road, 2,000 migrants drowned trying to cross the Aegean. Greece was plunged into turmoil and European leaders came under enormous pressure to “do something".
Now the something is working and they have had to be coldly pragmatic about keeping the deal with Turkey alive. Our Foreign Office would use one of its favourite words to describe the EU’s decision – expedient.
Turkey has hailed the European Union executive Commission's recommendation to grant Turkish citizens the right to travel to Europe without visas as "a new page" in relations between Turkey and the EU.
But what if the EU decides Turkey still falls short of the 72 requirements it must meet by next month? By March, it had cleared only half of the requirements, but in the past two months successfully ticked off dozens of others. There are five remaining benchmarks that we expect Turkey to meet by the end of June," European Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans said Wednesday.

Fears that the country is headed toward autocratic rule were reinforced Thursday when Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu resigned after falling out of favor of an increasingly authoritarian president.
In exchange, the EU offered Turkey 6 billion euros ($6.9 billion) in aid to cope with the refugee crisis within its borders, plus a series of political concessions including visa liberalization in the short term and potential EU membership in the long run. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is advocating the opposite a€” he wants to expand the definition of "terrorism" and "terrorist" to include anyone who supports or lends a voice to a terrorist organization, including scholars, journalists and legislators.
Turkey is also expected to step up anti-corruption measures a€” no easy task when graft scandals have involved people in the president's inner circle. The vulnerability of Turkey's data was painfully illustrated in April when the details of around 50 million citizens, roughly corresponding to the 2009 voter registry, was posted online by hackers. Anticipating a green light, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said new passports featuring chips that include fingerprints will be rolled out in June.
Turkish leaders have explicitly warned the European Union that they will stop cooperating on the migrant crisis if the visa requirement isn't lifted. Many thousands of migrants remain at the Greek border with Macedonia, hoping that the border crossing will reopen, allowing them to move north into central Europe. It invited member states and EU lawmakers to endorse the move by June 30, even though some conditions remain to be fulfilled.
Tens of thousands of people have crossed the sea from Turkey to Greece and then moved northward through the Balkans. It also comes as concern grows about Turkey's commitment to human rights and free speech amid a crackdown on the media and dissent.
At his vegan bistro in Berlin, Turkish-born businessman Yusuf Atalay called it great news for families struggling to visit Germany a€” which has about 3 million people claiming Turkish roots a€” for weddings and other celebrations due to strict visa rules. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has warned the entire agreement will collapse if the EU reneges on any pledge.
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. 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. 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. That effectively means Greece and Italy have been overburdened, and many of their EU partners have failed to help them cope. Other member states would take in a share of any asylum seekers a€” not those trying to escape poverty or looking for jobs a€” calculated from each nation's population and economic strength based on gross domestic product.
Turkey has a population of 78 million, but only a fraction hold passports and stand to benefit from the visa-liberalization deal.

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