ANKARA, Turkey – Turkey and the European Union on Monday signed agreements starting talks for a possible deal that would lift visa restrictions for Turkish citizens traveling to Europe and which Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan called a 'milestone' in relations between his country and the 28-member bloc.
Under the agreements signed in the Turkish capital Ankara, Turkey would in turn, agree to take back immigrants who illegally enter the EU from Turkish territory.
The deals on visa-free travel and the re-admission of immigrants come weeks after the EU resumed membership negotiations with Turkey that began in 2005 but have been stalled for more than three years, mainly due to Turkey's dispute with EU-member Cyprus and skepticism in some European nations on admitting a populous, largely Muslim country into the group.
The EU is refusing to start negotiations in eight policy areas until Turkey opens its ports and airports to goods from Cyprus. The island was split in 1974 when Turkey invaded after a coup by supporters of union with Greece. Turkish Cypriots in 1983 declared an independent northern state, which is only recognized by Turkey.
Turks have long complained about onerous visa demands from European nations that were designed to restrict Turkish citizens from flooding labor markets.
Erdogan said Turkey was no longer an exporter of labor and that the country's dynamic economy over the past 10 years meant that the country had now become a destination for jobseekers.
"No one should be concerned when the visas are lifted," Erdogan said during the signing ceremony. "We are not a country that is a burden (to the EU) but one that takes away its burdens."
The agreements foresee a deal on the lifting of visa restrictions within 3 ½ years, but Erdogan said he hoped it can be done much sooner.
The EU resumed negotiations with Turkey in November despite human rights concerns and its criticism over a police crackdown on this summer's anti-government demonstrations.
An EU report on Turkey's progress toward membership criticized Erdogan's government for what it called its "uncompromising stance" against dissent and its failure to protect fundamental rights such as freedom of speech and assembly.