Reports 2011

EU-Turkey relations - Towards visa liberalisation?

21 October 2011

“The Turkey-EU relationship is like a Catholic marriage. You may go through bad periods but the cost of divorce is too high,” said Gerald Knaus, chairman of the European Stability Initiative, a think-tank.

“Instead [of EU membership] we’re seeing a never-ending accession process, but visa-free travel is one area where progress can be made,” said Knaus.

He complained that many EU countries still impose visa requirements on Turkish nationals despite pledging to abolish them decades ago, and despite a spate of rulings by the European Court of Justice in Turkey’s favour.

Turks celebrated when Western Balkan nations were recently granted visa-free travel to the EU, because it became an achievable goal for citizens in the region. But it also led them to question why they don’t have it yet given that Turkey’s relationship with the EU dates back decades, Knaus explained.

Turkey has made clear that it wants “equal treatment [to] every civilised nation” and has indicated that it won’t agree to readmit third-country nationals that enter the EU via its territory without progress on visas, he recalled.

The Balkan countries’ roadmaps to visa-free travel offer a model for success. But EU capitals have legitimate concerns regarding Turkey and Ankara has not been very good at reaching out to allay their fears, Knaus claimed.

“The EU needs Turkey as a partner. 80% of illegal migrants entering the EU come over the Turkish border. But these migrants aren’t Turks: they’re Iraqis, Afghans, Somalis, Pakistanis and Algerians. Visa-free travel would be for Turks only,” he said.

“Trust in the EU is falling in Turkey, but the majority of Turks still want to join. The two societies are drifting apart, but visa-free travel would bring them closer together,” Knaus concluded.

Turkish citizens must undergo a lengthy and humiliating procedure when applying to travel to the EU and this breeds resentment, warned Selim Kuneralp, head of the Permanent Delegation of Turkey to the EU.

Turkey is a neighbour of the EU, is in a customs union with the bloc and has been developing formal relations with it for decades. “All this was supposed to lead to visa-free travel, so if countries on the other side of the world like Brazil have it, then why doesn’t Turkey?” Kuneralp asked.

Turkish companies face huge obstacles doing business with Europe due to restrictive visa requirements, he explained, while no such restrictions hinder Europeans operating in Turkey.

Ankara welcomes the EU’s visa liberalisation with Western Balkan countries because it enhances the European integration of the region, an objective that Turkey shares. “But seeing citizens there benefit from visa liberalisation regardless of their countries’ relationship with the EU frustrates Turks” given the country’s long-standing formal relations with Brussels, he said.

Kuneralp dismissed fears that visa liberalisation would lead to a massive influx of Turkish immigrants to the EU, reminiscent of the past. “Now Turkey is a dynamic economy, growing faster than EU countries: there’s a net outflow of Turks leaving Germany to go back home. So fears of a new wave of immigration are unfounded,” he said.

“The current state of the EU economy isn’t conducive to a rational debate on the issue,” Kuneralp concluded, expressing hope nonetheless that visa-free travel would become a reality because it would boost mutual trust and the image of both sides.

Rejecting accusations of double standards in the EU’s dealings with the Western Balkans and Turkey, German Green MEP Franziska Brantner said “the visa liberalisation process in the Western Balkans was highly politicised too”. She reminded participants that Kosovo residents had yet to be granted visa-free travel to Europe.

Drawing further parallels, she said security and border control were also a concern in Balkan countries and the region as a whole had experienced “political ups and downs”, leading the European Commission to introduce safeguards that make visa liberalisation more palatable to member states. “But it was still a political battle,” she added.

It is important not to forget that the European Parliament has co-decision powers on visa liberalisation, “because if the Parliament vetoes Turkish visa-free travel then it won’t fly,” Brantner said.

She highlighted the positive influence MEPs had over ensuring that Bosnians were granted visa-free travel to the EU once conditions had been met. “I’m not promising that the European Parliament would be as positive for Turkey as the Balkans, but it’ll still be more positive than member states,” she said.

“Turkey is a very normal democracy and should be treated as such,” said Filip Jasiński, a counsellor at the Polish Permanent Representation to the EU.

He stressed the importance of managing expectations for certain countries regarding visas, warning that visa dialogue, visa facilitation and visa liberalisation all meant very different things. “The Eastern Partnership isn’t vague on visa liberalisation: it’s a clear goal. But it takes a long time and there are no deadlines, because member states don’t like them,” he said.

“This isn’t the easiest time to discuss freedom of travel. We’ve just had the Schengen crisis and the whole acquis communautaire in this area is evolving. It’s about allowing freedom of movement for those who don’t pose a threat because they’re businessmen, students or family members,” Jasiński explained.