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European Commission Vice-President Frans Timmermans, EU Council President Donald Tusk, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and German Chancellor Angela Merkel (L-R) attend a news conference after visiting Nizip refugee camp near Gaziantep, Turkey , April 23, 2016. REUTERS/Umit Bektas

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By Alastair Macdonald

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The deputy head of the European Commission insisted on Thursday that the EU executive would not lower its standards to offer visa-free travel to Turks in exchange for Turkey's help in preventing migrants reaching Europe from its shores.

"We will not play around with those benchmarks," First Vice President Frans Timmermans told the European Parliament, referring to 72 criteria Turkey must meet if its citizens are to be allowed to travel to the EU without obtaining a visa first.

"The onus is on Turkey. They say they can do it."

A Turkish minister said all necessary legislation would be completed on Monday.

The Commission is due to decide on Wednesday whether to recommend that member states approve by the end of June the visa waiver scheme which the bloc offered Ankara as part of a deal in March by which Turkey is now taking back refugees and migrants who take boats to Greek islands from its nearby coast.

EU officials and diplomats said they expected the Commission to send a recommendation that Turkey should be given a visa waiver to the EU Council of member states, though it may include conditional elements as Ankara is unlikely to have completely met all the benchmarks by Wednesday.

Among sticking points has been Turkey's treatment in its own visa waiver system for Cypriot citizens, due to its refusal to recognise EU member Cyprus.

Timmermans noted concerns raised by lawmakers during the session about curbs on media freedoms and human rights in Turkey but argued that opening further discussions on eventual Turkish membership of the EU -- another element of the migrant deal -- would be a way to engage Ankara and convince it to change tack.

"If they want to come close to the European Union so badly let them prove that they can," the former Dutch foreign minister said. "The distance between us and Turkey is not decreasing, it is increasing because of human rights, the media and what is happening in civil society."

The prospect of easing visa rules for 75 million Turks has stirred unease in Europe at a time when governments are under pressure to curb immigration. Envoys from the 28 member states met in Brussels on Thursday to discuss the issue.

France and Germany have proposed inserting a mechanism into visa waiver deals, diplomats said, to give the EU a rapid legal means of suspending the freedom if, for example, there were an unexpected surge in people arriving from a country.

The envoys weighed how governments might respond to a Commission recommendation to facilitate travel for Turks at the same time as they review similar pending recommendations made for Georgians and Ukrainians.

"So, 125 million people possibly entering the EU without a visa - is that an easy message to convey to European citizens in the current context?" one diplomat said of the discussion.

Timmermans stressed that the agreement with Turkey had been essential to reducing a chaotic inflow of migrants and refugees and said a Turkish visa waiver programme could improve, not weaken, European security by obliging Turks to use machine-readable, biometric passports to benefit from the scheme.

"The agreement with Turkey in my view is the only way forward to solve that problem. Those who criticise the agreement have never ever given me an alternative we could work with."

(Additional reporting by Paul Taylor, Robert-Jan Bartunek and Julia Fioretti; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

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