European Union interior ministers showed no eagerness on Thursday to thoroughly discuss the practical details of lifting the visa obligation for Turkish citizens, a key element of the last minute deal with Ankara that EU leaders approved in principle at the extraordinary summit last Monday.
The 28 EU leaders have given themselves until the next week’s summit, on 17-18 March, to fine-tune the details of an agreement that has stirred resistance in some countries, not least due to concerns over Turkey’s record on human rights and press freedom.
EU officials also say Turkey, a country of 75 million, only meets about half of more than 70 technical requirements for visa-free travel with Europe.
“It is highly questionable that Turkey, which puts a newspaper critical of the government under its own control, presents a wish-list three days later and is rewarded by discussions about earlier visa liberalization,” said Austrian Interior Minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner.
“I ask myself if the EU is throwing its values overboard,” Mikl-Leitner said as she arrived for Thursday’s ministerial talks, adding that she would push for a termination clause to be inserted into any final agreement.
Austria and other countries along the main migration route linking Greece to Germany via the Western Balkans, have resorted to unilateral tightening of border controls as the bloc struggles to forge a joint response to the migrant crisis.
That has put further strain on Europe’s Schengen zone of passport-free travel, now on the verge of collapse, deepened rifts between states over the crisis that has already fueled support for far-right parties across the bloc.
Under Monday’s tentative deal, Turkey would take back all migrants crossing to Europe who are ineligible for asylum as well as everyone – including those fleeing wars and hence eligible for international protection – fished out from the sea before reaching EU shores.
However, EU officials said just a few returns should be sufficient to convince the migrants they stood no chance of being allowed to stay and to agree to be sent back to Turkey.
“People will not stop coming by themselves, so we have to show that it doesn’t pay to use a trafficker and come to Europe in an illegal way,” said Klaas Dijkhoff, migration minister of the Netherlands, current holder of the EU’s rotating presidency.
The interior ministers also discussed plans for a common border and coast guard that the EU hopes to deploy for the first time in late summer to improve protection of its external borders.
To ease the burden on Greece, where tens of thousands of migrants are now stranded in increasingly dire humanitarian conditions, the EU is stepping up relocations, with more than 900 people moved so far. However, that still falls far short of the 160,000 migrants EU states committed to move internally.
The EU ministers also expressed concern on Thursday that, with borders all but shut across the Western Balkans, migration routes would split into smaller streams of people seeking other routes of entry into the EU.
Italy could come under increased pressure if people stuck in Greece try to get out via Albania and the Adriatic Sea.
“We are working to prevent that,” Italy’s Interior Minister Angelino Alfano said, without giving details. (with AP, Reuters)