Turks have long been bitter over the fact they are the only candidate country negotiating EU membership that does not have a visa-free regime with the EU. All the countries of the Western Balkans have them -- apart from Kosovo because of its difficult political situation -- but even this is set to change now too. Moreover, the EU’s current visa policy towards Turkey is in violation of its own legal obligations. A protocol to the 1963 Association Agreement Turkey signed with the EU states that both sides “shall refrain from introducing between themselves any new restrictions on the freedom of establishment and the freedom to provide services.” A series of European court rulings have also underlined the rights of Turks’ to travel, including a European Court of Justice ruling in February 2009 that Turkish truck drivers Mehmet Soysal and İbrahim Şavatlı, as service providers, did not need a visa to enter Germany.
Therefore, after a long stalemate, this new development has been warmly welcomed. Turkey’s Minister for EU Affairs, Egemen Bağış, described the decision as a “historic step,” while EU officials said the move added fresh momentum to bilateral relations. Yet, as the saying goes, we should not count our chickens before they are hatched, and it is unlikely this is going to be a smooth or quick process. It could still be years before Turkish citizens can just jet off to Europe at a moment’s notice.
While clearly the EU should have moved forward on this issue some time ago as it was becoming a serious bone of contention between the two partners, it seems to have taken on more urgency because of the deteriorating situation regarding illegal immigrants entering Greece from Turkey and the urgent need to secure the border. Hence, the reason why the EU would like the readmission agreement signed and implemented as soon as possible. The border remains extremely porous, and according to FRONTEX, the European Agency for the Management of Operational Cooperation at the External Borders of the Member States of the European Union, at least 75 percent of all illegal border-crossings into Europe were reported by Greece at the Greek land border with Turkey in Evros. Official FRONTEX figures state more than 61,000 illegal immigrants have been detected at the border since the beginning of this year. The real figure is almost certainly much higher. Turkey signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with FRONTEX in May to further cooperate on stemming the flow, and the EU asked Turkey to enhance cooperation with EUROPOL, including entering into an agreement for joint operations with it, while also requesting that Turkey fully implement the existing bilateral readmission agreements it has with certain EU member states, but little progress has been made.
Because Turkey will not deal with the Greek Cypriot presidency of the EU, which begins on July 1, Brussels is pressing Turkey to sign the readmission agreement before the end of the Danish presidency -- meaning by the end of this week. As we know, Turks are not easily pushed into anything, and in reply Ankara has stated that it is only willing to sign once it has seen the contents of the action plan.
Turkey sees the readmission agreement as a trump card at this point, so it is not going to trade it without bargaining to the maximum. This approach has annoyed the EU, and some people I spoke to believe that having just gotten countries that were skeptical about granting Turkey visa liberalization on board, for Turkey to start making what they consider “unnecessary” demands is going too far. Furthermore, it is not clear whether it would be possible for the European Commission to pull together this document at such short notice. However, while Turkey’s approach may not be welcomed, it underlines the lack of confidence that Ankara has towards the EU side. Clearly, there is a feeling that some of the wording may be somewhat ambiguous, which could create difficulties further down the line.
Once signed, full implementation is going to be some time off. During the first stage -- some two years -- the readmission agreement will only apply to Turkish citizens. After that period it will apply to third country citizens, too, which represents the bulk of illegal immigrants. It also seems the process for implementing all the necessary steps for a visa-free regime will be considerably longer, around six years. This was underlined by Commissioner Stefan Füle, who said it was “premature” to give concrete dates, “It will not happen tomorrow, but what is important is that we stopped talking about it and started working towards [it].” The wording in the Council Conclusions was also a bit ambiguous, talking about it as a “long term perspective.” Moreover, at the end of the process the European Council will need to vote on it again. At least this will be a decision based on qualified majority voting (QMV) rather than unanimity.