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June 24, 2012, Sunday

Turkey not out of the woods on visa yet

Last week the member states of the European Union invited the European Commission, the Brussels-based institution that deals with the day-to-day running of the EU, to take steps towards visa liberalization with Turkey.

The commission will probably publish an Action Plan this autumn showing how this procedure will be organized, what Turkey is supposed to do and what the EU is offering, when and under which conditions. The move was hailed by Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu as “a historic step.” In the media it was claimed that the process is expected to be concluded in a period of two to three years and will allow 75 million Turks to freely travel to countries in the EU soon.

I do not want to spoil the party, but I am afraid some prudence is called for. First, on the present visa regime: There is no doubt that the system that is now in place for Turkish citizens to get a visa for Schengen zone countries is humiliating and deeply flawed. From a political point of view, it is impossible to defend the ongoing restrictions for Turkish citizens, while at the same time the EU has reached agreements for visa-free travel with other countries, for instance in the Balkans, with which is has not even started accession negotiations. On top of that comes a growing pile of jurisprudence from courts in the EU and its member states stating that the current visa requirements must be considered to be in conflict with the provisions of the 1973 Additional Protocol to the Ankara Agreement. In other words: Asking Turks for a visa is both politically and legally unacceptable.

The only reason why this malpractice continues is the deeply rooted fear that the EU will be flooded by Turks who will come and not go back. The recent rise of right-wing populism has only made it more difficult for EU politicians to do what, on rational grounds, they should be doing: treating Turkey in the same way as other countries have been treated in the past and gradually allow Turks to travel to the EU without a visa.

Is last week’s agreement the belated recognition of this obligation by the EU? That would be jumping to conclusions. As an old English proverb puts it: “Don’t halloo till you are out of the wood.” Turkey is not there yet, definitely not within two or three years.

The positive news is indeed that for the first time the term “visa liberalization” has been used in an EU document that deals with Turkey. Till now other, vague phrases were invented to shy away from the inevitable conclusion that Turkey should be put on the regular EU visa track.

Reading last week’s EU conclusions though, one cannot but wonder when the promise is going to materialize. There is talk of a “gradual and long-term perspective” and, more importantly, on progress that is conditioned on an effective and consistent implementation by Turkey of the so-called readmission agreement that forces the country to accept Turkish nationals and later on third-country nationals who have entered EU territory illegally from Turkey and are sent back.

The problem with last week’s deal is that it involves a lot of pretending. The EU pretends to treat Turkey in a fair way but has put in place so many conditions that it will be quite easy for reluctant member states to slow down and frustrate real progress.

Turkey on the other hand pretends that it will only sign, ratify and implement the readmission agreement when the EU has started to produce effective visa exemptions. In Ankara the dominant belief is that the pro-Turkey court rulings inside the EU will eventually force the EU to become more flexible. Therefore, Turkey can wait and see and does not need to move itself in a substantial way.

The good thing about last week’s agreement is that the wording and, to a certain extent, the mood has changed. The people responsible for implementing the deal inside the European Commission have the intention to make it a success. Still, the problem is with some EU countries that will only give in when all delaying tactics have been exhausted. In the meantime, Turkish politicians should be careful not to promise too much, and Turkish citizens should push their representatives to act on their part of the deal and not postpone the necessary measures that Turkey has to put into effect anyway

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