BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union executive will propose on Wednesday relaxing visa requirements for Turks, two sources said, after Ankara threatened to walk away from a migration agreement unless the EU eased travel rules for Turkish citizens.
The 28-nation EU depends on Ankara’s cooperation to maintain a March agreement that has helped stem the flow of refugees and migrants arriving from Turkey, which saw more than a million people reached Greece and Italy last year.
Liberalising visa rules for Turkey, a Muslim country of 79 million people, is a contentious issue among EU states. But Brussels is pressing ahead so it can keep the migration accord in place, as Europe struggles with its worst migration crisis since World War Two.
An EU official and a source close to the negotiations between Brussels and Ankara said a meeting of the EU’s executive European Commission on Wednesday will propose easing the visa requirements.
The second source said a preparatory meeting on Monday backed the move before the EU Commission discusses the matter on Wednesday.
Turkey is supposed to fulfill 72 requirements to win visa liberalization, and an EU official said on April 21 that Ankara has satisfied fewer than half of them.
However, the second source said on Monday that Turkey has since met many more, though it was clear it would not tick all 72 by Wednesday.
An EU diplomat said separately on Monday that Turkey was now meeting 65 of the benchmarks. The diplomat said it was wrong to only adopt a “quantitative approach” to progress on them.
It was not clear whether the 65 had been met completely or only partly, but the swift change shows Brussels is striving to provide more lenient travel rules, which would still not allow Turks to work or stay in the EU longer than three months.
European Commission spokeswoman Mina Andreeva earlier on Monday highlighted progress on the Turkish side: “Turkey has made a lot of efforts over the past weeks and days to meet the criteria, including for example ... on access to the labor market for non-Syrian refugees.”
Among the biggest obstacles are Ankara’s refusal to recognize EU member Cyprus and its patchy record on civil and minority rights, freedom of expression and the rule of law.
Reporting by Paul Taylor, Francesco Guarascio and Gabriela Baczynska, editing by Larry King