Turkey signed a long-awaited deal with the European Union on Monday to send back people who enter the bloc illegally from its territory in exchange for talks on visa-free travel for its citizens.
The move, hailed as a “milestone” in EU-Turkish relations, comes six weeks after Ankara resumed talks to join the bloc, ending a 40-month freeze.
The EU has committed to ensuring visa-free travel for Turkish citizens in 2017 at the earliest in return for Turkey signing the agreement.
“The gateway to Europe without a visa will now be open,” Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said, pledging that Turkey would fulfil its obligations.
Erdogan said he would be heading to Brussels next month while French President Francois Hollande is due to visit Turkey on January 27-28.
“These visits represent an opportunity to give a new impetus, a new enthusiasm to our relations with the European Union,” he said.
The EU wants Turkey, a crossroads between Europe and Asia, to take back thousands of illegal migrants who have crossed its borders into Greece, the EU’s eastern frontier.
The deal had stalled in 2012, with Turkey refusing to sign as the EU would not commit to starting negotiations on the visa-free travel regime applied to other candidate countries.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu signed the accord with the 28-nation bloc’s Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom at a ceremony in Ankara.
Both Ankara and Brussels hailed it as “milestone” in Turkish-EU relations but observers warn that the process might come to a standstill if Turkey -- considered the main transit country for illegal immigrants from Asia -- fails to live up to its commitments.
But Erdogan was adamant.
“We will not be a burden but instead share the burden,” he said.
The predominantly Muslim country of 76 million resumed talks in November to gain entry into the EU after a three-year freeze.
Brussels was going to open talks in June but decided to postpone them for several months in response to the Turkish government’s deadly crackdown on mass street protests that rocked the country that month.
Turkey, a regional Sunni Muslim power, has found itself losing influence in its backyard in the wake of the Syrian civil war and the Arab Spring uprisings.
“The EU has come to realise that it has to defend some segments within Turkish society and revive the talks,” Nilgun Arisan Eralp of Ankara-based think tank TEPAV, told AFP.
“And Turkey is inching toward the EU because it is increasingly isolated in the Middle East,” she added.
Turkey’s efforts to join the EU formally started in 2005 but stalled due to several stumbling blocks including a territorial dispute with member Cyprus and opposition from heavyweights France and Germany.
Hollande’s trip follows France’s decision to lift its blockade on one of the chapters or policy areas that each candidate state is required to complete for full membership.
As a staunch opponent of Turkey’s EU membership bid, France has blocked five chapters on the grounds that their opening would automatically guarantee full membership.
The French objections came from former president Nicolas Sarkozy who argued that Turkey was not part of Europe but Ankara sees Hollande as more open to its European ambitions.