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EU gives Turkey visa-free travel for keeping refugees at border

John Irvine reports from Istanbul on the day the EU approves visa-free travel for Turkish people inside Europe's passport-free Schengen area.

The visa deal was in return for Turkey agreeing to take back migrants who crossed the Aegean Sea to Greece.

For the Syrians who gather daily outside a central Istanbul train station, there’s a sad irony in Turkey’s visa-waiver deal with the EU.

Freedom to go to Europe is the Turkish people’s reward for keeping the refugees trapped here.

And when it’s all boiled down that is the choice European leaders were faced with – open the door to Turkish tourists and business people, who just want to visit, or, face the prospect of another flood of Syrians, who want to stay.

2,000 migrants drowned trying to cross the Aegean last year Credit: ITV News

There’s no doubt the migrant crisis was the catalyst for the EU to soften on some of its benchmarks – giving Turkey the green light before it has done more in relation to the treatment of minorities; human rights and freedom of expression.

“The EU has given in to a dictator’s ransom demand,” is how Can Dundar, editor of the opposition newspaper Cumhuriyet, described today’s announcement.

He regards the Turkish leader, President Erdogan, as a modern-day Sultan.

Can Dundar, editor of opposition newspaper Cumhuriyet Credit: ITV News

From his office Mr Dundar can see the courthouse where he is due to appear on Friday.

He could be sentenced to thirty years for revealing state secrets.

His ‘crime’ was to exclusively report that Turkey was delivering weapons to rebel forces in neighbouring Syria.

“I was doing my job,” he says. He’s already spent three months in jail.

Monday saw a punch-up in the Turkish parliament over a proposal to withdraw immunity of prosecution from MPs.

The fight was between the ruling party and Kurdish representatives.

Those in power want immunity to be taken away so Kurdish MPs can be prosecuted on terrorism charges for their support of the PKK.

Hardly the sort of treatment of minorities the EU is looking for.

Turkey says it will open the flood gates again if visa-free travel doesn't become a reality Credit: Reuters

The flow of migrants from Turkey to Greece has been reduced to a trickle.

Ankara has made clear that if visa-free travel doesn’t become a reality it will open the flood gates again.

Last year, when Turkey was a stepping stone, rather than the end of the road, 2,000 migrants drowned trying to cross the Aegean.

Greece was plunged into turmoil and European leaders came under enormous pressure to “do something".

Now the something is working and they have had to be coldly pragmatic about keeping the deal with Turkey alive.

Our Foreign Office would use one of its favourite words to describe the EU’s decision – expedient.

That means it’s sufficiently self-serving to excuse any bad taste left behind.