[BRUSSELS] European Union interior ministers will back plans on Friday to make it easier and faster to suspend visa-free travel with any third country, officials said, amid deepening public concern about the scale of immigration into the bloc.
The EU is in politically sensitive talks with Turkey on relaxing travel requirements for Turks seeking to visit Europe for up to three months and with no right to work.
The 28-nation bloc is planning the concession to Ankara as part of a deal whereby Turkey agrees to take back migrants who reach Greece from its shores, but some EU states are anxious about opening up to a mainly Muslim nation of 79 million people.
To assuage such concerns, the EU plans to upgrade a mechanism that allows it to suspend the visa waiver with any of some 60 countries that have such agreements in place. The plan enjoys broad backing among the 28 states and in the European Parliament.
As well as Turkey, the EU is currently also working on easing travel rules for citizens of Ukraine, Georgia and Kosovo.
Countries which already enjoy visa-free travel include Japan, the United States, South Korea, Venezuela, Israel and Canada. "Visa liberalisation brings great benefits but there also are risks. It is designed for short stays of tourists or for business travel," said Klaas Dijkhoff, migration minister for the Netherlands, which now holds the bloc's rotating presidency.
Under the plan, Mr Dijkhoff said, the suspension mechanism will become easier to invoke in cases where the more liberal visa regime is abused.
Currently the mechanism can be triggered if a country experiences a sharp increase in overstays, asylum applications or readmission refusals over a six-month period from a non-EU state that has had its travel rules relaxed.
Last month Germany and France proposed to expedite the procedure and the ministers are expected to approve the shortening of that period to two months. They also intend to speed up the procedure for approving any suspension request.
The plan also adds "substantial increase of risks to the public policy or internal security" as grounds for suspending visa-free travel.
The changes will apply to the countries of Europe's Schengen zone, which comprises most but not all EU member states and several non-EU countries such as Norway and Switzerland.
Britain and Ireland are not affected as they are outside the Schengen area. Immigration is a key issue in the campaign for Britain's June 23 referendum on whether to leave the EU.