EU–Turkey, is there hope for visa liberalisation?
Turkey and the EU have been discussing visa liberalisation since 2013. But will increasing diplomatic tensions put the opportunity at risk?
On 16 December 2013, a delegation of the European Commission – led by its Commissioner for Home Affairs – and a delegation of the Republic of Turkey – led by its Minister of Foreign Affairs – met in Ankara and held the first session of the EU-Turkey Visa Liberalization Dialogue.
The Commission presented the ‘Roadmap towards a visa-free regime with Turkey’. The document included a list of criteria on the basis of which the Commission services would assess their expediency to present the proposal to lift the Schengen visa obligations currently imposed on Turkish citizens to the Council and to the Parliament.
After the signature ceremony, Turkey’s Minister of Foreign Affairs pointed out that Turkey and the EU had reached a historical point in their relationship. The minister stated his wishes for the process to be beneficial to both Turkey and the EU, while also being an opportunity for the integration of the people. He also mentioned three phases ahead of EU-Turkey relations, which would include a ‘psychological revolution’, an ‘acceleration in cooperation’ and the arrival of ‘intensive interaction’.
Turkey’s Prime Minister stated that no negative outcome would be experienced in the event of visa liberalisation, and that on the contrary, businessmen, artists, sportsmen, and civil society organization members would be able to travel to the EU more freely – which would be very beneficial to the EU.
Representatives of the Commission expressed the view that Visa Liberalization Dialogue between the EU and Turkey represented the most appropriate tool for allowing the two sides to present their respective concerns and expectations in the fields of migration and mobility.
Visa-Free travel from July 2016
A lot of progress has been made since the beginning of Visa Liberalization Dialogue between the EU and Turkey in 2013. On May 29 2016, the President of the European Parliament said that a visa-free regime between Turkey and the 28-nation bloc would be possible from July 2016 if Ankara fulfilled 72 of the EU’s requirements.
One of the requirements set out by the EU was Turkey’s fulfilment of the deal agreed on by Brussels and Ankara during March 2016, when Turkey pledged to take back and accommodate all undocumented migrants who arrive in the European Union through Turkey’s territory.
In an attempt to comply with the EU’s demands, by the end of April 2016 it was reported that Turkey had already taken back 325 irregular migrants from Greece. Implying the deal was working, the President of the European Council said “we have seen a sharp reduction of the illegal migration flows”. He then praised the Turkish government as “the best example in the world on how to treat refugees”.
Political consensus needed
In spite of the progress being made in the deal between Ankara and Brussels, one EU official has said “the 72 criteria are not enough. There still needs to be political consensus among the 28 member states”. But for years, several EU countries, such as France and Germany have been reluctant to allow visa-free travel for the 75 million Turkish citizens, fearing increased migration.
Turkish Prime Minister said that since Turkey has fulfilled its part of the refugee agreement with the EU, visa-free travel should now be implemented, further claiming the visa wavier for entering the EU’s Schengen area was “vital” for Turkey and its citizens.
In response, one Member of the European Parliament (MEP), braded the deal a “huge error of judgement”, while other MEPs have voiced concerns about Turkey’s lack of progress on some of the EU’s other preconditions – arguing Turkey still “has a lot of homework to do” in other areas.
However, in Turkey’s defence, the European Migration and Home Affairs Commissioner said that although Turkey still needed to make progress, he was optimistic that Ankara would give a final push to the necessary reforms by the end of June.
Even though Turkey has been moving forward with the preconditions set out by the EU, its Minister for EU Affairs said he was losing hope of getting a deal on visa-free travel for Turks within Europe – describing the possibility as seeming “less and less” likely. This reaction came after the EU highlighted its requirement for Turkey to narrow its definition of terrorism – as well as meet some other criteria – to qualify for visa-free travel. The Turkish Minister claims that changing anti-terror laws in Turkey would be impossible.
The Catalan MEP announced, “The facts are clear. In four key areas, Turkey is evidently failing to live up to its obligations”, and that visa liberalisation should not be approved until the Turkish state complies with its obligations.
Further comments came from the Co-Chair of The Greens–European Free Alliance, who said, “The clamp-down against all opposition by the [present Turkish] regime has reached a new level. The sentencing of journalists to long prison terms for criticising the government is the latest worrying development”. Adding, “The recent developments make it clear that the EU cannot rely on Turkey alone for its refugee policy”.
Criticism continued as one far-right MEP described the idea of giving visa-free access to Turkish citizens as “absolutely crazy”, claiming that Turkey was using migration as a “weapon” against the EU.
The EU Commission Chief has since passed on a list of measures still needed to be met by Ankara, including Turkey’s national anti-terrorism laws, freedom of press, measures on combating corruption, judicial cooperation with all EU member countries, and the issuing of passports that include the fingerprints of the document holder.
According to officials, Turkey’s Prime Minister seemed confident that Turkey would deliver on time. The Turkish Prime Minister has also said that Turkey would no longer honour the EU-Turkey accord if the EU failed to ease visa requirements by June. In response, the EU Commission President said the requirements for Turkey would not be watered down.
Possible termination of migrant deal
In addition to all that has so far been discussed, on 2 June 2016, Germany’s Parliament voted to join a list of more than 20 countries that declare the mass killings of Armenians by Ottoman Turks in 1915 a genocide.
The Turkish government denies an organised programme of ethnic cleansing, and in response to Germany’s decision, Turkish lawyers have filed a complaint accusing Germany of “insulting Turkishness and the Turkish state”. Before the vote, the Turkish President warned the German Chancellor that if her MPs voted for the resolution, there would be consequences.
As a result of the vote, a diplomatic dispute has been ignited. Turkey has recalled its ambassador to Germany, and there have been talks of a possible termination of the migrant agreement between Ankara and Brussels – which could have dire consequences for both the EU refugee problem and Turkey’s hopes of visa liberalisation within the EU.