Cleared from scrutiny; drawn to the attention of the Home Affairs Committee and the Foreign Affairs Committee
Proposal for a Regulation amending Regulation (EC) No.539/2001 listing the third countries whose nationals must be in possession of visas when crossing the external borders and those whose nationals are exempt from that requirement (Turkey)
Article 77(2)(a) TFEU, ordinary legislative procedure, QMV
(37740), 8671/16, COM(16) 279
37.1In 2015, more than 800,000 irregular migrants crossed the Aegean Sea from Turkey to Greece. In March 2016, the EU and Turkey agreed a series of actions to stem the flow. They included the prospect of visa-free travel for Turkish nationals to the Schengen free movement area (but not to the UK) in return for a commitment by Turkey to take back all irregular migrants leaving its shores for Greece. The target date for lifting visa requirements was the end of June 2016. Meeting this ambitious timetable depended on Turkey’s ability to fulfil all of the 72 benchmarks set by the EU in Turkey’s visa liberalisation roadmap, including one requiring changes to Turkey’s terrorism laws.
37.2The EU Visa Regulation sets out the criteria for deciding whether to allow visa-free access to the Schengen area for short stays of no more than three months (90 days in any 180-day period). In May 2016, the Commission published a proposal to amend the Regulation by including Turkey in the list of third countries whose nationals (provided they possess biometric passports) do not require a visa. The Commission made clear that further progress on the proposal would be dependent on Turkey’s continued fulfilment of the roadmap benchmarks and its implementation of the EU-Turkey deal on combating irregular migration. It also made clear that the final decision on visa-free travel would rest with the Council and European Parliament.
37.3In his Explanatory Memorandum submitted in May 2016, the then Immigration Minister (James Brokenshire) explained that the UK does not participate in the visa, border control and immigration elements of the Schengen rule book and so would neither vote on nor be bound by the proposed amending Regulation. He considered that the proposal to grant Turkish nationals visa-free travel to the Schengen free movement area had “no direct policy implications for the UK” since the UK was “not part of the Schengen visa process”.
37.4Our predecessors considered the proposal in June 2016 and made the following observations:
“We appreciate that the proposed Regulation will not apply to the UK and that the UK has no formal role to play in its adoption. If it is adopted—and many doubts and uncertainties remain—the Government will not be required to grant visa-free access to Turkish nationals wishing to visit the UK. We nevertheless question the Minister’s assessment that the proposed Regulation has no direct policy implications for the UK, in light of the Government’s strong support for the agreement reached with Turkey in March (and endorsed by all EU leaders) to stem irregular migration flows to the EU and take back irregular migrants. We ask the Minister whether he agrees with the Commission that visa-free access to the Schengen free movement area is ‘an essential component’ of the agreement with Turkey. If so, how substantial a risk is there that Turkey would renege on the agreement if visa-free access were delayed beyond June?
“We would also welcome the Minister’s view on the outstanding benchmarks in Turkey’s visa liberalisation roadmap. Does he agree with the European Parliament that visa-free access should not be granted until all of the benchmarks have been fulfilled, or does he consider that some are more important than others? What is the Government’s assessment of the likelihood that Turkey will amend its domestic terrorism laws to address concerns about their scope and their application to critics of the Turkish government, and does the Minister share these concerns? How active a role does the Government intend to play in encouraging Turkey to meet the benchmarks? We also ask the Minister to comment on the Commission’s assessment of the impact of visa-free travel to the Schengen area on irregular migration to the EU and the security of the EU. Does he share the Commission’s view that the impact is unlikely to be substantial?”
37.5Our predecessors held the proposed Regulation under scrutiny pending the Minister’s response and requested an update on any developments within the Council and European Parliament.
37.6The Immigration Minister (Brandon Lewis) apologises for the Government’s much-delayed response which was the result of “an administrative oversight”. He tells us that seven of the 72 benchmarks in Turkey’s visa liberalisation action plan remained outstanding at the end of 2016. While some progress has been made since then, he does not expect Turkey to fulfil the remaining benchmarks “in the near future” and adds that changing the definition of terrorism in Turkish law continues to be “a major stumbling block”. Member States continue to insist that all benchmarks must be met before further progress can be made on visa liberalisation. Whilst Turkey’s President Erdogan has previously stated that the EU must “keep its part of the deal” agreed in March 2016, including visa-free access, the Minister says there are “no indications at present that this will lead to a change of position by Turkey on its commitments”.
37.7The Minister explains that, in parallel to discussions with Turkey on visa liberalisation, the EU has strengthened its visa waiver suspension mechanism, making it easier for the EU to re-introduce a visa regime if visa-free travel were to lead to an increase in irregular migration or a heightened security risk.
37.8The Minister reiterates that the UK is not part of the Schengen free movement area and so will not be bound by any visa liberalisation agreements entered into by Schengen countries. The UK keeps its own visa regimes under regular review. Whilst the Government has not made its own assessment of the impact of visa liberalisation on irregular migration flows into the Schengen area or the possible implications for the UK once it leaves the EU, the Minister makes clear that “the UK has no plans to change its visa regime for Turkey”.
37.9The Minister tells us that the definition of terrorism in Turkish law remains “a major stumbling block” and that Turkey is “unlikely” to fulfil the outstanding benchmarks which would pave the way to visa-free travel to the Schengen area. He does not tell us whether the Government shares the EU’s concerns about the scope and application of Turkey’s terrorism laws or explain how active a role the UK is playing in encouraging Turkey to meet the remaining benchmarks.
37.10The Report of the Foreign Affairs Committee, The UK’s relations with Turkey published in March this year helps to explain this reticence. The Committee noted the UK’s support for Turkey’s efforts to defend itself against terrorism and its swift condemnation of the coup attempt in July 2016, observing:
“In the face of those threats, the FCO [Foreign and Commonwealth Office] told us that the understanding that the UK has shown to Turkey is almost unique. The UK empathises before it criticises, we were told, and this has favourably distinguished it from other countries—particularly those of the EU—in the eyes of the Turkish government.”
37.11The Committee also said the Government should “press Turkey to adopt a narrow and focused definition of ‘terrorism’, and to ensure that it—or other procedural methods—are not applied in the politically-motivated sense of silencing the government’s critics”.
37.12We note the prospect of the EU agreeing to visa-free travel to the Schengen area appears to have receded in recent months. As the UK has no vote on this matter, and the Minister confirms that “the UK has no plans to change its visa regime for Turkey”, we are content to clear the proposed Regulation from scrutiny. In doing so, we make clear that we expect the Government to inform us promptly of any new developments which may lead to a reinvigoration of the visa liberalisation process and, at the same time, to clarify its own position on the reforms demanded of Turkey in return, including to its terrorism laws. We draw this chapter to the attention of the Home Affairs and the Foreign Affairs Committees.
Proposal for a Regulation amending Regulation (EC) No.539/2001 listing the third countries whose nationals must be in possession of visas when crossing the external borders and those whose nationals are exempt from that requirement (Turkey): (37740), , COM(16) 279.
37.13The EU began a dialogue with Turkey on visa liberalisation in December 2013 based on a roadmap setting out 72 benchmarks (covering document security, migration management, public order and security, fundamental rights, and the readmission of irregular migrants). Turkey would need to fulfil all 72 to secure visa-free travel to the Schengen free movement area for short stays of no more than three months in any six month period.
37.14The Commission has published three progress reports on Turkey’s implementation of the roadmap, the most recent in May 2016. Details of the Commission’s findings and the outstanding benchmarks to be fulfilled by Turkey are set out in the Report agreed by our predecessors in June 2016 which is listed at the end of this chapter. They include:
37.15As well as fulfilling these benchmarks, a decision to grant visa-free access to the Schengen area must be based on the criteria set out in the EU Visa Regulation. This requires “a case-by-case assessment of a variety of criteria relating, inter alia, to illegal immigration, public policy and security, economic benefit, in particular in terms of tourism and foreign trade, and the Union’s external relations with the relevant third countries including, in particular, considerations of human rights and fundamental freedoms, as well as the implications of regional coherence and reciprocity”.
37.16The EU Visa Regulation includes “reciprocity and suspension mechanisms”. This means that visa-free travel to the Schengen area can be revoked or suspended if reciprocal visa-free access for EU citizens is withdrawn or there is evidence that the visa-free regime is being abused.
37.17The Minister (Brandon Lewis) explains that a report published by the Commission last December on the implementation of the EU/Turkey deal on irregular migration indicated that seven benchmarks set out in Turkey’s visa liberalisation action plan remained outstanding. He says that the Commission continues to engage with Turkey with a view to finding “practical solutions to progress the required legislative and procedural changes” but adds:
“It appears that, while some progress is being made, including on changing the definition of terrorism in Turkish law, which is a major stumbling block, Turkey is unlikely to fulfil the remaining benchmarks in the near future. Member States have stressed that all the benchmarks in Turkey’s visa liberalisation roadmap should be met before further progress on visa liberalisation.
“We have no indications at present that this will lead to a change of position by Turkey on its commitments, although President Erdogan has previously stated that the deal is incumbent on the EU keeping its part of the deal.”
37.18The Minister notes that the Commission’s third progress report on Turkey’s implementation of its visa liberalisation roadmap included a detailed assessment of the Commission’s reasons for believing that visa-free access to the Schengen area for Turkish nationals would be unlikely to have a substantial impact on the security of the EU or illegal migration to the EU. He continues:
“The UK keeps its visa regimes under regular review but has made no separate assessment of how visa liberalisation will affect irregular migration flows into the Schengen area or whether visa liberalisation will have implications for the UK once the UK has left the EU. I would like to re-iterate that the UK is not part of the Schengen area and is not therefore bound by visa liberalisation agreements that Schengen countries enter into. The UK has no plans to change its visa regime for Turkey.”
37.19Finally, the Minister notes that the Council and European Parliament have formally adopted a Commission proposal to strengthen the EU’s visa waiver suspension mechanism:
“The suspension mechanism sets out the circumstances in which visa-free travel for citizens enjoying visa liberalisation can be temporarily suspended. The amended suspension mechanism in Regulation 539/2001 came into force on 1 April 2017. It allows speedier (3 months rather than 9) re-imposition of a visa regime if a country’s citizens are causing an immigration or security problem.”
Fourth Report HC 71–iii (2016–17),(8 June 2016).
483 See Frontex’s .
484 See .
485 See the Minister’s of 26 May 2016.
486 See the European Parliament’s issued on 10 May 2016.
487 See the Council’s on 27 February 2017 on the revision of the visa waiver suspension mechanism.
488 See the of the Foreign Affairs Committee, HC 615 (2016–17), The UK’s relations with Turkey, published on 25 March 2017.
489 See Article 1 of the EU Visa Regulation, as amended by .
490 See the of the EU Visa Regulation.
1 December 2017