Reuters International

A woman adjusts the Turkish flag next to the European Union flag before the arrival of Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu (unseen) at the EU Commission headquarters in Brussels January 15, 2015. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir

(reuters_tickers)

By Gabriela Baczynska

STRASBOURG (Reuters) - Turkey must meet all criteria for visa-free travel with Europe, a top European Union official said on Tuesday, after Ankara threatened to walk away from a crucial migration deal with Brussels unless it eased travel rules for Turkish citizens.

The EU depends on Turkey for a deal its backers say has already contributed to stemming the flow of refugees and migrants across the Aegean sea to Greece since it was enacted earlier in April, despite criticism from rights groups.

Under the deal, Ankara gets more EU funding for refugees living on its soil, revival of long-stalled EU accession talks and quicker visa liberalisation. The EU on Tuesday disbursed another 110 million euros for refugees in Turkey, bringing the total to 187 million so far of a planned 3 billion.

In exchange, Turkey is due to prevent migrants and refugees from departing from its shores for Europe via illegal routes and take back all who reach the 28-nation bloc that way.

But Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said on Monday Turkey would no longer need to honour the accord if the EU failed to ease visa requirements by June.

"As part of the agreement, we are working towards visa liberalisation for Turkish citizens. Turkey must fulfil all remaining conditions," European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker told the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, a regional rights body bringing together 47 states.

"Visa liberalisation is a matter of criteria. The criteria will not be watered down in the case of Turkey," he said.

Granting visa waiver to Turkey, a country of 75 million, is highly controversial among EU states where some fear it would open the way for more Muslim migration to the bloc already struggling with its worst migration crisis in decades.

More than 1.1 million refugees and migrants reached the EU last year, mostly via Greece from Turkey. But daily arrivals have fallen sharply since the Ankara-Brussels deal.

Brussels has said that Turkey fully meets only 19 out of 72 criteria for visa liberalisation. Davutoglu said on Monday that only seventeen of the visa waiver requirements remained to be completed and expected that to happen by May.

NON-SYRIANS

However, the EU has made a link between visa-free movement and another part of the migration deal it wants Ankara to deliver on - assurances that people of nationalities other than Syrian will be given effective access to asylum procedures once they are returned from the EU.

Turkey currently extends protection to Syrians only. While the bloc wants to deport other asylum-seekers as well, any such returns would violate international law unless Ankara granted them proper treatment.

EU officials monitoring implementation of the deal on the ground said last week that the four related visa-free conditions were "far from being fulfilled" and Juncker pressed Davutoglu on that when they met face-to-face in Strasbourg on Tuesday.

Ankara has so far shied away from such steps, saying that would trigger more arrivals into the country, which already hosts some 2.5 million refugees from neighbouring Syria, more than any other single country.

Addressing parliamentarians after meeting Juncker, Davutoglu did not signal that was about to change: "Turkey has fulfilled all its commitments under the deal. All the provisions we agreed on in the EU-Turkey deal have been put into effect... There is no pending issues. In fact we, Turkey, can talk about some pending issues."

(Editing by Richard Balmforth)

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