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The European Union took steps on Wednesday towards lifting visa requirements for Turkish citizens, in a move underscoring a new thaw in relations between Ankara and the 28-member bloc.

The two sides agreed to sign an agreement allowing EU governments to send back illegal immigrants crossing into Europe from Turkey. In return, the EU agreed to enter into official discussions on how the current requirement for a visa when travelling to Europe could be dropped.

Turkey, a candidate for EU membership, lies on a major route for illegal migration into Europe from Africa and the Middle East.

But talks on the “readmission agreement” to send back illegal immigrants have been stalled for years, largely due to Turkish distrust over the EU’s willingness to ease visa rules.

“(The agreement) creates sustainable momentum in our relations that should first of all have the positive impact of putting accession talks back on track”, EU enlargement commission Stefan Fuele told reporters.

In another sign of improved relations, Turkey and the EU began a new round of membership talks last month. Talks had been delayed by the bloc in protests over a Turkish crackdown on anti-government demonstrations.

Turkey began negotiations to join the EU in 2005, 18 years after applying. But a series of political obstacles, notably over the divided island of Cyprus, and resistance to Turkish membership in Germany and France, have slowed progress.

Reporting by Justyna Pawlak. Editing by John O’Donnell and Catherine Evans.

Copyright (2013) Thomson Reuters. Click for restrictions.

Tags: eu, turkey, visas
Photo Credit: The Bosphorus Bridge that links the city's European and Asian sides, with the European side in the background, lights up with a fireworks display during the Republic Day celebrations in Istanbul. Murad Sezer / Reuters