[email protected]

March 23, 2012, Friday

Turkish citizens want, deserve visa-free travel to EU

At first sight, it may seem like a secondary issue for those who do not give in to pessimism with regards to Turkey’s EU accession process -- such as the author of this column -- but after a panel held yesterday morning at Ankara’s International Strategic Research Organization (USAK), I realized once more that in order for Europe to (re-)conquer the hearts and minds of the Turkish electorate, granting them visa-free travel to fellow European countries that are part of the Schengen zone could be a vital step in the right direction.

USAK had invited Alexandra Stiglmayer and Gerald Knaus from the European Stability Initiative (ESI), a European think tank with offices in Berlin, Brussels as well as in İstanbul, to address the subject of “Breaking through the Schengen Wall -- a visa liberalization strategy for Turkey in 2012.”

I had received the background paper ahead of Friday’s meeting, and I carefully studied it at face value, as well as began to try to read between the lines. Is visa liberalization perhaps already in the cards? Is it what Brussels really wants? Does Turkey do its part to comply with rules and stipulations that for sure would form part of any to-be-proposed visa package?

ESI used a fascinating mathematical calculation -- the distribution of votes in the EU’s Council of Ministers! If Turkey could win enough votes in the Council of Ministers, aka at least 228 out of 309 votes, visa-free travel could become a reality in perhaps a timeframe of no more than 24 months.

I have never seen such a detailed analysis outside of EU Law classes and hope that ESI’s document will be widely read in Ankara’s corridors of power.

First, a qualified majority -- but not unanimity -- is required in the Council meeting that would decide about Turkey’s application to be elevated to Schengen country status, so lobbying a number of friendly as well as key EU member states might well pay off. What’s the catch? Turkey would have to help Brussels act as a reinforcer with regards to creating a common external border for the entire EU. This is not so odd, as Turkey would automatically become the EU’s eastern and southeastern borders once it became a full member state.

Second, what I heard that was even more promising was that Brussels might one day soon adopt Realpolitik vis-a-vis Turkey in the context that illegal immigration into Greece via Turkey is all about non-Turkish citizens as, frankly speaking, the economic situation this side of the Greek-Turkish border is much better than across. The always erroneous and manipulative comment made by those against Turkey’s accession to the EU was that hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of unemployed Turkish citizens would travel into the EU come the night of EU accession. These figures were never scientifically proven and after almost a decade of economic growth, are not simply hypothetical, but misleading and childish at best. Another issue discussed was the Balkans and how via re-admission agreements first and visa-free travel second, current and prospective EU member states have benefited from a gradual liberalization of visa regulations.

The panel concluded that Turkey could become the next such beneficiary country as long as both sides act unemotionally and tactfully. The panel did not say that Ankara is not tactful -- which as far as I am concerned, having observing Turkish EU policies for a fair number of years, it for sure is -- but that Turkey could gain more by highlighting the positive impacts of visa liberalization instead of criticizing Brussels for its lengthy application and implementation procedures.

Turkey should argue from a position of relative strength but incorporate Brussels’ (hopefully soon overcome) hesitations in this regard, too.

Turkish civil society should begin to discuss whether accepting visa-free travel before becoming a full EU member state is a worthwhile approach and whether Turkish citizens would benefit from this roadmap. Turkish politicians should speak with Brussels and after what we heard earlier today, in particular with members of the EU’s Council. The Council can then support visa-free travel for Turkey -- a win-win situation could be in the making!

What I wish to add is that as long as being part of Schengen is not a covert step pushing Turkey toward privileged partnership instead of full membership, ESI’s discussion papers could become a key feature towards achieving just that.

Previous articles of the columnist