BRUSSELS (Reuters) - European Union ministers on Friday backed making it easier and faster to suspend visa waiver with third countries and said relaxing travel rules for more states was not imminent amid deepening public concern about immigration into the bloc.
The EU is in politically sensitive talks with Ankara on easier travel requirements for Turks seeking to visit Europe for up to three months and with no right to work.
The 28-nation bloc is planning the concession as part of a deal whereby Turkey helps curb the influx of migrants and refugees to Europe. But some EU states are anxious about opening up to a mainly Muslim nation of 79 million people.
To assuage such concerns, the EU is beefing up a mechanism that allows it to suspend visa waiver with any of some 60 countries that have such agreements in place. The plan, endorsed by 28 EU interior ministers on Friday, enjoys backing in the European Parliament, which must sign off on it as well.
“Visa liberalization has great advantages for the EU and third countries,” said Klaas Dijkhoff, migration minister for the Netherlands, which now holds the bloc’s rotating presidency.
“Yet we need... to make sure that visa liberalization cannot be abused. I‘m pleased that we agreed today on a mechanism that makes it easier to act against abuse.”
As well as Turkey, the EU is currently working on lifting visas for citizens of Ukraine, Georgia and Kosovo. Countries which already enjoy such travel benefits include Japan, the United States, South Korea, Venezuela, Israel and Canada.
German interior minister, Thomas de Maziere, said the EU should not grant visa-free travel to more countries until the suspension mechanism is in place. His French colleague, Bernard Cazeneuve, said more relaxed travel rules for the four countries were not a matter “of the coming weeks and months”.
Dijkhoff said the 28 ministers agreed that the four candidates must meet all criteria given to them by the EU to enjoy visa-free travel and that, while they were capable of eventually doing so, that was not the case yet.
In proposing extending the EU visa-waiver program to the four countries, the bloc’s executive European Commission said Ukraine, Georgia and Kosovo had already fulfilled their requirements, while Turkey was due to meet them by end-June.
But diplomats from EU states differ on whether that is the case, with most agreeing though that at least Georgia has done its homework in full.
Visa liberalization for Turkey, a key puzzle in the broader migration collaboration, has now been pushed back to July or, more likely, the autumn, sources told Reuters.
The new safety mechanism cuts to two months from six now the period after which a country can seek to suspend visa-waiver if it sees a sharp rise in overstays, asylum requests or readmission refusals from a non-EU state that has had travel rules relaxed.
The changes would apply to the countries of Europe’s free-travel Schengen zone, which comprises most EU states and several non-EU ones, such as Norway. Britain and Ireland are not part of the Schengen area and would not be affected. Immigration is a top issue in Britain’s June 23 vote on whether to leave the EU.
Additional reporting by Tom Koerkemeier, Editing by Ralph Boulton