STRASBOURG (Reuters) - Turkey must meet all criteria for visa-free travel with Europe, a top European Union official said on Tuesday, after Ankara threatened to walk away from a crucial migration deal with Brussels unless it eased travel rules for Turkish citizens.
The EU depends on Turkey for a deal its backers say has already contributed to stemming the flow of refugees and migrants across the Aegean sea to Greece since it was enacted earlier in April, despite criticism from rights groups.
In the deal, Ankara was promised more EU funding for refugees living on its soil, revival of long-stalled EU accession talks and quicker visa liberalization.
In exchange, it is due to prevent migrants and refugees from departing from its shores for Europe via illegal routes and take back all who reach the 28-nation bloc that way.
But Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said on Monday Turkey would no longer need to honor the accord if the EU failed to ease visa requirements by June.
“As part of the agreement, we are working towards visa liberalization for Turkish citizens. Turkey must fulfill all remaining conditions,” European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker told the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, Europe’s leading human rights organization.
“Visa liberalization is a matter of criteria. The criteria will not be watered down in the case of Turkey,” he said.
Granting visa waiver to Turkey, a country of 75 million, is highly controversial among EU states where some fear it would open the way for more Muslim migration to the bloc already struggling with its worst migration crisis in decades.
More than 1.1 million refugees and migrants reached the EU over the last year, mostly via Greece from Turkey. But daily arrivals have fallen sharply since the deal between Ankara and Brussels.
Brussels has said that Turkey fully meets only 19 out of 72 criteria for visa liberalization. Davutoglu said on Monday that only seventeen of the visa waiver requirements remained to be completed and he expected that to happen by May.
However, the EU has made a clear link between visa-free movement and another part of the migration deal it wants Ankara to deliver on - Turkish assurances that people of nationalities other than Syrian will be given effective access to asylum procedures once they are returned from the EU.
Turkey currently extends protection to Syrians only. While the 28-nation bloc wants to deport other asylum-seekers as well, any such returns would violate international law unless Ankara granted them proper treatment.
EU officials monitoring implementation of the deal on the ground said last week that the four visa-free related requirements were “far from being fulfilled”.
Ankara has so far shied away from such assurances, saying that would trigger even more arrivals into the country, which already hosts some 2.5 million refugees from neighboring Syria, more than any other single country.
Editing by Richard Balmforth