BERLIN (AA) – European Council President Donald Tusk has hailed enhanced cooperation between the EU and Turkey amid criticism by opposition politicians and the media.
“Yes, Turkey is a difficult partner, but the most reliable one in the region,” Tusk said in an interview with German daily Bild, published on Monday.
“The country is facing a difficult situation: weekly terrorist attacks; unsafe borders with Syria; Iraq and Iran. Plus over two million refugees in the country. That is why we have to offer [Turkey] both solidarity but also criticism,” he said.
Tusk emphasized that the EU would not accept violations of the freedom of press and opinion, and will continue to raise such issues in talks with Ankara.
The EU-Turkey refugee deal was hammered out by European and Turkish leaders in March, and was strongly backed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
The agreement was widely criticized by European Parliament lawmakers and opposition parties in Germany for ignoring alleged human rights deficits in Turkey, and making Europe too much dependent on Ankara in finding a solution to the refugee crisis.
“Nothing in life is for free, including this agreement. However, we will not accept violations of the freedom of the press and opinion. You can believe me when I say how important they have been for my whole life,” Tusk said.
The EU-Turkey deal aims to discourage irregular migration through the Aegean Sea by taking stricter measures against human traffickers and improving the conditions of nearly three million Syrian refugees in Turkey.
The deal also allows for the acceleration of Turkey’s EU membership bid and visa-free travel for Turkish nationals within the Schengen area, on the condition that Ankara meets 72 requirements set by the EU.
Tusk stressed on Monday that Turkish citizens will benefit from visa freedom once Ankara “fulfills all of the requirements”, without exception.
“The negotiations will probably last till October, but we are constantly making progress,” he told Bild.
While Turkey fulfilled most of the criteria last month, differences between Brussels and Ankara on anti-terror legislation have forestalled the visa liberalization, previously expected in June.
The EU has said Turkey must revise its “legislation and practices on terrorism in line with European standards” in order for visa liberalization for Turkish citizens to enter into force.
But Ankara has firmly rejected any such change, stressing that it is not realistic to expect such changes at a time when Turkey is fighting terror organizations such as the PKK and Daesh.
The PKK – listed as a terrorist organization by Turkey, the U.S. and the EU – resumed its 30-year armed campaign against the Turkish state in July 2015.
Since then, over 500 security personnel, including troops, police officers, and village guards, have been martyred, and more than 5,000 PKK terrorists killed in operations across Turkey and northern Iraq.