YAVUZ BAYDAR

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YAVUZ BAYDAR
October 14, 2012, Sunday

Positive agenda: visa-free travel

It is understood that not much is expected to happen between Turkey and the European Union this year. We can all spend time carefully reading the positive and negative findings in the EU's Oct. 10 progress report. Meanwhile, the frost carries on.

Is there hope? Well, 2013 is a new year, and as soon as Cyprus leaves its duties to Ireland as president of the union from January on, there will be work to be done. If there is will and might left, that is. If so, there is a way to melt the ice.

In September 1963, the EU -- then called the European Economic Community (EEC) -- signed a very ambitious Association Agreement with Ankara. Next year, both parties will celebrate its 50th anniversary.

Using that momentum, the decisive step would be to move towards a full visa-free access for all Turkish citizens to the EU. This is the vision of the ever hopeful and constructive nongovernmental organization the European Stability Initiative (ESI).

A lack of free travel for Turks into Europe is the greatest issue, both unfair and hypocritical, poisoning relations between the two parties on the human level. Turkish passport holders, increasingly middle class, with pockets full of money, curious to visit areas beyond national borders, as well as businessmen, scholars and students seeking to be a part of globalization, are subjected to humiliating behavior.

The ESI, in a new report titled “Towards a Golden Jubilee,” argues Turkey's case related to its visa status with the EU: “Between 2008 and 2010, the EU conducted a successful visa liberalisation process with five Balkan countries, abolishing the visa requirement for all of them. Unlike Turkey, none was a negotiating EU candidate country. Today, the EU is in the midst of a visa liberalisation process with Moldova and Ukraine, neither of which has a membership perspective. For Turks, it is clear that -- as citizens of a candidate state -- they should have been the first to be offered a visa liberalisation process or, at the very least, treated in the same way as Serbia, Bosnia or Albania.”

In light of this, one can perhaps understand the Turks' deep frustration with the current visa regime and their legitimate sense of alienation from the EU. The ESI goes further: “Turks consider the EU's stance on the issue -- that the ball is in Turkey's court -- as hypocritical. A series of recent court rulings in Germany and the Netherlands have found that Turkish nationals already have the right to visa-free travel to many EU member states due to commitments made by the EU as part of its association agreement with Turkey. So far, the EU and its members have hardly reacted to these rulings. Instead they have kept the visa requirement in place -- all while underlining the importance of the rule of law in Turkey and in other enlargement countries.”

And even further: “Turks also feel deceived. In 2010 Turkey negotiated in good faith the text of a readmission agreement with the EU, which the bloc had been keen on since 2002. The negotiations were difficult, but led to a text agreed upon by both sides. Under this agreement, Turkey would commit to take back all Turkish nationals found in the EU without a visa or residence permit, as well as, after a transition period of three years, third-country nationals that have reached the EU via Turkey.”

“In return for concluding negotiations on this agreement, Turkey hoped to receive the promise of a visa liberalisation process from the EU. Instead, EU interior ministers offered a meaningless ‘dialogue on visa, mobility and migration.' Turks perceived this as the diplomatic equivalent of a slap in the face,” the report said.

Despite the deep mistrust and dinged relations, the ESI argues that here we have an opening. Its report suggests several concrete steps: Stop putting Turkish citizens in endless visa queues and requiring an excessive amount of documents -- and scrap the 60 euro visa fee, for one. Second, follow Austria's commendable pattern, and issue no less than a five-year, multiple-entry visa. (Austria rarely issues short-term visas, instead deciding rationally that an applicant who fulfills the initial requirements does not have to repeat the procedure weeks or months later.)

The ESI also endorses the process that began in mid-2012 on visa liberalization for Turkey. It demands that the “readmission agreement,” which is expected to be signed in some weeks, should have the same visa roadmap applied to the five Balkan states earlier. Turkey, for the sake of visa liberalization, must sign the agreement and inform properly the European Parliament (EP), which is already inclined to the idea of visa-free travel. Turkey's reaching the necessary 228 votes in the EP is likely, the ESI concludes. It is in the interest of many critical member countries, which need a boost in their domestic tourism, such as Germany, Greece and Austria. To win the votes of the rest is easier.

To break the utterly disturbing deadlock, ESI (www.esiweb.org) offers a reasonable path to follow. Visa-free travel to Europe would allow Turkey, whose strong, prosperous and travel-crazy middle class makes up more than 60 percent of the country, to contribute to the EU economy through tourism, soften prejudices by human contact and keep the membership flame alive at home.