This month, diplomats and MPs struck a deal to end an internal EU dispute, which will result in the EU soon letting Ukrainians and Georgians visit the bloc without needed a visa. The dispute had been holding up the promised measures.
Agreement on a mechanism to suspend such visa waivers in emergencies has effectively ended mounting embarrassment for those EU leaders who felt that the bloc was reneging on pledges to former Soviet states that it has promised to help as they try to move out from Moscow’s shadow. The move came after the European Council President warned that the EU was risking its credibility by failing to reward Georgia and Ukraine for painful reforms. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has since hailed the move as “encouraging news from Brussels.”
The prospect of easier travel to Western European countries has been used by governments in Kiev and Tbilisi in order to win popular backing for painful, EU-sponsored reforms. However EU leaders got cold feet about opening doors to 45 million Ukrainians after the public backlash that followed last year’s refugee crisis in Europe. Furthermore, facing strong challenges from anti-immigration parties in elections next year, leading powers France and Germany demanded strong controls before any visa agreement was signed. Late-night talks have since resulted in the European Parliament conceding that governments can reimpose visa requirements quickly, with MPs’ approval.
Georgia, which has only 5 million citizens, has long been seen as being ready for visa liberalization. However many believe that its failure to achieve such as agreement has been due to the EU’s hesitation over Ukraine, which is bigger, closer and currently stuck in conflict with Russia. A similar plan to ease travel for Turkey’s 75 million citizens, which is part of a deal whereby Ankara has helped the EU shut out Syrians and other people seeking asylum, has added to political sensitivities in Brussels about the issue. The process with Turkey has been frozen because of Ankara’s failure to fulfil all the EU conditions, coupled with anger across Europe at Turkey’s crackdown on opponents following a coup attempt in July.
The bloc has disclosed that any new visa waivers can only come into force after the EU has increased an emergency brake to suspend any free-travel deals in emergencies. However talks on exactly how that “snap-back” mechanism would work have dragged on for months. It will now allow the executive European Commission or a majority of EU states to suspend swiftly a country’s visa exemption for nine months if there is a sharp rise in its citizens overstaying their permitted time in the EU making multiple asylum requests or other problem for th European. The EU would be able to extend the suspension period for a further eighteen months in some cases, however through amore complex procedure that would also give a say to the European Parliament.
Last week, German Chancellor Angela Merkel called on the European Union (EU) and North African countries to do deals modelled on a controversial agreement that was signed with Turkey earlier this year to stem migrant flows to Europe.
Under the EU-Turkey agreement, Ankara agreed to take back one Syrian who made it to Greece in return for being allowed to send one from its massive refuge camps to the bloc in a more orderly redistribution programme. The agreement also pledges billions of euros in EU aid to Turkey, along with visa-free European travel for Turkish citizens and accelerated EU membership talks.
Last week, the German Chancellor told regional daily Neue Passauer Zeitung, “we must agree on similar deals with other countries, such as in North Africa, in order to get better control over the Mediterranean Sea refuge routes.” She further stated, “such agreements are also in the interest of the refugees themselves,” pointing to the huge risks that migrants take in crossing the Mediterranean in rickety vessels, as well as the large sums that they have to pay smugglers for the perilous sea passage. She added, “it is safer for them and there are good reasons for them to remain in Turkey, close to their homeland, where the cultural and language barriers are lower,” defending the agreement with Turkey as “correct, as before,” and stating, “we should work to ensure that it lasts.” Merkel has also urged EU partners to stop up to their responsibilities in taking in refuges who had arrived in Greece. Prior to the EU-Turkey agreement taking effect, some 45,000 refugees had arrived in Greece as Macedonia closed its borders to the migrants.
There are increasing concerns across the EU that the pact with Turkey to curb migrant flows could collapse as a rift deepens over Ankara’s crackdown following a failed coup. Turkey angrily rejects EU criticism that its post-putsch purges might violate rights norms that Ankara must meet under the agreement in return for visa-free travel for Turks and accelerated negotiations for bloc membership. Hungary has already announced that it will build a second fence along its southern border with Serbia that would effectively enable it to keep out any major new wave of migrants should the EU-Turkey agreement collapse.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban announced on 26 August that the country is planning to build a second fence on its southern border with Serbia that would effectively enable it to keep out any major new wave of migrants.
Orban told public radio that the new barrier, which is to be built alongside the existing one, would strengthen defences to respond if Turkey’s policy on migration changed, adding that if that occurred, hundreds of thousands could appear at Hungary’s border. He noted that “technical planning is under way to erect a more massive defence system next to the existing line of defence, which was built quickly (last year).” Orban also disclosed that Hungary had to prepare for the eventuality of a deal between Turkey and the European Union (EU) to clamp down on migration into Europe via the Balkans unravelling, adding, “then if it does not work with nice words, we will have to stop them with force, and we will do so.” He also indicated that Hungary would increase its police presence to 47,000 from 44,000, of which 3,000 will be constantly deployed on the southern border.
A razor-wire fence built along Hungary’s southern border with Serbia and Croatia has sharply reduced the flow of migrants. Last year, hundreds of thousands of migrants moved up from the Balkans towards northern Europe. That flow however has since been reduced to no more than a steady trickle.
Under the existing agreement between Turkey and the EU, Turkey has agreed to help stem the tide of illegal migrants into the bloc in exchange for aid and visa-free travel for Turkish nationals. Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan however has repeatedly stated that European leader are not living up to their side of the pact.
On Friday, Orban and other prime ministers of Central European EU member states, the Visegrad countries, met in Warsaw along with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Orban stated that the task for politicians was to change a decision by the EU to let in migrants and distribute them based on quotas among member states. Oran stated that “the question is whether Angela Merkel will be willing to change this flawed Brussels decision together with us. Whether she is willing to fight with us for this, or not.” Hunger is due to hold a referendum on 2 October on whether to accept any future EU quota system for resettling migrants.
On 13 July, French diplomatic missions in Turkey’s two main cities closed until further notice and cancelled planned events to mark France’s 14 July National Day due to security concerns.
The French consulate general in Istanbul had been due to hold a reception on Wednesday evening to mark national Day, while French mission in Ankara and the Aegean coastal city of Izmir had planned to hold events on Thursday. However on Wednesday, a statement issued by the French Embassy in Ankara disclosed that “for security reasons, July 14th receptions planned in Ankara, Istanbul and Izmir are cancelled,” adding that it had informed the Turkish authorities of the decision and was in close contact with them. The statement also indicated that “the embassy of France in Ankara, as well as the consulate general in Istanbul will be closed from Wednesday July 13, 1 PM (1100 BST), until further notice.” Earlier in the day, the consulate general in Istanbul indicated that there was information suggesting a “serious threat against plans for the celebration of the July 14 national holiday in Turkey.”
Turkey is facing multiple threats, including from militants belonging to the so-called Islamic State (IS) group, who have been blamed for a triple suicide bombing at Istanbul’s main airport several weeks ago, which killed 45 people and wounded hundreds. The attack was the deadliest in a series of bombings that have occurred this year in the NATO member state.
On Monday (10 August), the United States Consulate in Istanbul was targeted by two women, with at least nine people killed in a series of separate attacks, which has raised fears that Ankara’s decision to launch a crackdown on the Islamic State (IS) group as well as Kurdish and far-left militants will trigger more violence on Turkish soil.
At 1AM local time, a car carrying explosives struck a police station in Istanbul’s Sultanbeyli neighbourhood. Officials have reported that three policemen and seven bystanders were wounded in the incident, and that the attacker was killed. Less than six hours later, two gunmen opened fire on the same police station, setting off a gunfight, which resulted in the deaths of two attackers and one police officer. There was no claim of responsibility for either attack and so far, IS has not issued any statements about the police station assaults.
At 7AM on Monday, two women targeted the US Consulate in the Sariyer district. According to Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency, there were no casualties, and one of the two women was captured. The news agency has reported that authorities have identified her as Hatice Asik, 42, of the Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party-Front (DHKP-C). Turkey’s foreign ministry has condemned the attack, stating that security at US diplomatic missions were being tightened. On the ground sources have reported that police with automatic rifles cordoned off streets around the US consulate. Two years ago, the DHKP-C, which is designated a terrorist group by both Turkey and the US, killed a Turkish security guard and wounded several others in a suicide attack that targeted the US Embassy in Ankara. Monday’s attack came a day after the US sent six F-16 fighter jets and about 300 personnel to Incirlik Air Base in Turkey, as part of coalition efforts to fight IS. Late on Monday, the DHKP-C claimed on its website that one of its female militants carried out the attack.
Elsewhere in Turkey on Monday, a roadside bombing in southeastern Sirnak province killed four policemen and wounded another. One soldier was killed when a military helicopter drew fire in the province in an attack that officials have blamed on the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
Since launching strikes on IS fighters in Syria and PKK militants in northern Iraq, Turkey, which is a NATO member, has been in a heightened state of alert. Authorities in the country have also rounded up hundreds of suspected militants.