The European Commission is to grant Turkey conditional approval this Wednesday for visa-free travel within the EU’s Schengen area, sources have told the BBC.
The move is part of a deal in which Turkey has agreed to take back migrants who have crossed the Aegean to Greece.
But Turkey must still meet EU criteria, BBC Europe Editor Katya Adler says.
She says the EU fears that if the visa agreement slides, so will Turkey’s commitment to stopping migrants.
The huge numbers of migrants and refugees arriving in Europe from Turkey, and from North Africa, has caused a political crisis among EU states.
Analysis by Katya Adler, BBC Europe Editor
If the European Commission (the EU’s executive body) does make the recommendation this Wednesday that Turks be granted visa-free travel in Europe’s Schengen area, as whispers from well-placed EU sources suggest, then it will be doing so holding its nose and its breath.
The freedom of speech; the right to a fair trial and revising terrorism legislation to better protect minority rights – these are just some of the criteria demanded by the EU of countries before it lifts visa requirements even for short-term travel.
It is hard to see how Turkey could be described as meeting these conditions. Ankara increasingly cracks down on its critics in a manner more autocratic than democratic.
But these are desperate times for the EU. The European Commission and most EU governments are under huge public pressure to ease the migrant crisis.
My sources say the commission will therefore keep to the agreed script. But they insist this is no blank cheque. Turkey will get the green light over visas this week to keep it sweet. But it will also be informed of the outstanding criteria it still needs to meet.
Under the EU-Turkey agreement, migrants who have arrived illegally in Greece since 20 March are to be sent back to Turkey if they do not apply for asylum or if their claim is rejected.
For each Syrian migrant returned to Turkey, the EU is to take in another Syrian who has made a legitimate request.
Human rights groups question the deal’s legality and argue that Turkey is not a safe place to return people to.
Last month, however, European Council President Donald Tusk said the deal had begun to produce results.
He praised the Turkish government as “the best example in the world on how to treat refugees”, despite criticism by rights groups of the agreement.
At the same time, Turkish PM Ahmed Davutoglu said his country had fulfilled its part of the agreement and that the issue of the visa waiver for the EU’s Schengen area was “vital” for Turkey.
The agreement says Turkey must meet 72 conditions by 4 May to earn access by the end of June, but diplomats have said that only about half of those points have been met so far.
A note on terminology: The BBC uses the term migrant to refer to all people on the move who have yet to complete the legal process of claiming asylum.
While freedom of travel is just one of several concessions Europe made to Turkey in March to secure the refugee deal, it is by far the most significant one.
Turkey has been negotiating with Brussels over visa liberalization for some time and was on course to complete the process later this year, but Ankara worried it could be derailed and put the issue on the table during the refugee talks. The EU agreed to settle the issue by the end of June, provided Turkey meets the requirements.
For Turks, the promise of visa-free entry to Europe is about much more than just convenience. Above all, it’s an acknowledgement that Turkey is a respected partner, a first-world power that stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the West.
In Europe, facing a surge in right-wing populism, establishment politicians regard the move with trepidation. The worry is that Europe could see a surge of Turkish asylum seekers and economic migrants. Even though the agreement would include an “emergency brake,” allowing the EU to suspend it, the political damage would be done.
That EU leaders accepted visa-free travel in the face of those concerns reflects how desperate the bloc, and in particular Germany, was to win Turkey’s assistance.
Now, with the deal showing early promise, officials say they are determined to see it through. There is no plan B.
In private, European officials acknowledge the credibility gap that the deal with Turkey has created.
“We’re not going to turn them into a model democracy by Wednesday,” one official said. “It’s going to be very difficult.”
At the same time, they insist the crisis can’t be resolved without Turkey’s help.
Some officials have begun comparing the refugee crisis to the eurozone debt crisis. The EU-Turkey deal, they say, represents the same kind of turning point as European Central Bank President Mario Draghi’s pledge to do “whatever it takes” to save the euro. Controversial at the time, Draghi’s move succeeded in calming investor fears the common currency was on the verge of collapse.
Since the Turkey deal came into force, the number of refugees arriving in Greece has dropped from as many as 10,000 per day last fall to a handful.
“It’s impressive,” the official said. “Yes, Turkey is a difficult partner but there is no alternative.”