The European Commission advocates EU-Turkey agreement at today’s Summit

Ahead of today’s European Summit, the European Commission published six principles for further developing EU-Turkey cooperation in tackling the migration crisis. The principles addresses the concerns aired after the informal EU-Turkey meeting last week (7 March).

On the perhaps the most controversial point, the return of illegal migrants from Greece to Turkey, the Commission assures that “all returns need to be carried out in line with the refugee protection safeguards that have been put in place in international and EU law.”

This entails that every asylum application is treated individually, respecting the clear legal and procedural parameters set out in the EU Asylum Procedures Directive. “There is no question of applying a 'blanket' return policy, which would be contrary to the legal requirements and the fundamental rights of asylum seekers.”

At a press conference yesterday (16 March), European Commission First Vice-President Frans Timmermans underlined that “the bottom line concerning returns is this: returns can only take place in accordance with the international and EU legal framework. I think there was a lot of misunderstanding on this in the last week.”

The Commission states now that a number of safeguards exist to protect asylum seekers' rights, including individual examinations of every case, personal interviews and a right of appeal against inadmissibility decisions.

However, in order to apply these provisions, modifications would be required to both Greek and Turkish domestic legislation – in Greece to ensure Turkey is classified a safe third country and in Turkey to ensure access to effective asylum procedures for all persons in need of international protection.

For every Syrian national returned from the Greek islands another Syrian refugee will be resettled to the EU directly from Turkey. Some EU Member States objected to this idea which was proposed by Turkey. For this to function, Member States should make a sufficient number of resettlement places available. The Commission points out that there are remaining places under existing relocation decisions.

As regards EU concessions to Turkey, the Commission explains that there are no shortcuts in the visa liberalization process and the accession process with Turkey.

In order to meet the target of lifting the visa requirements by end of June, Turkey would have to meet 72 benchmarks, divided into 5 “blocks”: document security, migration management, public order and security, fundamental rights, and readmission of irregular migrants out of which about only half have been fulfilled.

The benchmarks are assessed in a complicated way which leaves room for interpretation. According to the Commission’s latest report on Turkey’s progress on fulfilling the requirements (4 March), some benchmarks have been rated “as almost fulfilled” or “fulfilled only partially”. Yesterday the Commission stated that 35 of the benchmarks have already been fulfilled.  

Frans Timmermans stated that “visa liberalisation for Turkish citizens rests on the fulfilment of clear conditions. The only way to get there faster is to make faster progress in fulfilling the benchmarks. Meeting the deadline of the end of June will therefore require further efforts from Turkey.”

Optimistically, “on the understanding that Turkey takes the necessary measures to fulfil the remaining requirements, the Commission will make a legislative proposal to lift the visa requirements for Turkish citizens at the end of April 2016.”

The Commission is also working on advancing the accession negotiations with Turkey but not date is given for the start of the negotiations. “We are not giving Turkey a free ride,” Frans Timmermans says. “The Commission aims to finalise all preparatory documents in the spring with a view to submitting them to the Council, “without prejudice to Member States' positions and the negotiating framework.”

The Brussels Times

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