While it is a well-known fact that hundreds of refugees die in the attempt to cross into what has been called “Fortress Europe” every year, it may come as a surprise to many that even obtaining simple short-stay visas for tourist or business purposes is often a complicated affair.
For Turkish citizens in particular, obtaining a visa from one of the 25 countries in the Schengen area remains a lengthy and often very pricey ordeal. In the process, up to 40 different documents have to be provided by the applicant -- and that still is no guarantee that a visa will actually be issued in the end.
The difficulties are all the more unjustified, as according to legal experts and the EU’s own jurisdiction, visa requirements for Turkish citizens are not in accordance with EU law.
However, the fact that the EU is violating legal agreements when it demands visas from Turks to enter the Schengen zone has become watered down in lengthy negotiations. The EU has made negotiations about visa facilitations for Turkey conditional on Turkey’s willingness to readmit illegal migrants who have entered the EU through Turkey. Yet, despite Turkey’s willingness to do so, some in Europe are still blocking a solution.
Ever tried getting a visa?
Any Turk who has ever tried to obtain a visa for an EU country will know how tedious the process can be. Amongst the problems most commonly mentioned by disillusioned applicants are the costs involved, the long waiting periods and the sheer number of documents that have to be provided. Zeynep Özler and Melih Özsöz from the Economic Development Foundation (IKV) have worked on a visa hotline project carried out with the support of the Turkish Union of Chambers and Commodity Exchanges (TOBB) and the European Citizen Action Service (ECAS). The project documented the problems faced by Turkish citizens in the visa application process for a period of three months. Speaking to Sunday’s Zaman, Özler and Özsöz say the rate of visa rejections was unreasonably high and the procedure unnecessarily long. “Sometimes no reason at all was provided by embassy staff, and even where reasons were provided these were dubious. In other cases, academics were given an appointment with embassy staff after the date of the conference they wished to attend.”
Another common complaint involves both the amount and the content of the documents. A simple look at the German Consulate’s website verifies this claim. A leaflet detailing the standard set of documents that needs to be provided in order for a business visa lists as many as 13 different documents. These include an official invitation letter by the German counterpart, notarized proof of the signature of the applicant, company registration documents and many other things. Mind you, this is only the standard set of documents. It is still at the discretion of the embassy staff to ask for any additional information.
Speaking on the condition of confidentiality with Sunday’s Zaman, a Turkish businessman who recently applied for a visa to a Schengen country explains: “In total, I had to provide 17 different documents, some of which were asking for very sensitive information like personal bank statements, credit card details and the company’s turnover.” Özler confirms that applicants often have to provide very detailed information which breaches common standards of confidentiality in private and business life.
Visa requirement a trade impediment for Turkish businesses
But the disclosure of important information is not only awkward for the individual who may not want to lay open his bank accounts. It also gives European businesses an important advantage over their Turkish competitors, says Harun Gümrükçü, a professor at Akdeniz University and head of the Europe Without Visas Research Group. “The consulates want all sorts of papers, sometimes 23 different documents. Of course that makes you wonder, what for? After all, we have no way of guaranteeing that all this information stays at the consulates.”
But that’s only one side of the coin. The other side is that visa requirements actually amount to a serious trade impediment for Turkish businesses. Since Turkey and the EU set up a customs union in 1996, goods can be exchanged freely between them. This has greatly advanced trade relations between Turkey and the EU but has also made the need for barrier-free travel even more pressing. While Europeans can travel to Turkey on a whim, Turkish businessmen and academics regularly miss out on important conferences and meetings. Even worse, they are left to the mercy of their European associates in the process. “Imagine you encounter a conflict with your European partner,” Gümrükçü says. “If he refuses to provide you with an invitation letter, you simply cannot go.”
Yet, the question of improving Turkish access to Europe is not only one of an economic nature. There’s more at stake. The EU’s unwillingness to allow Turks into their countries also carries psychological implications. The ongoing visa worries have resulted in an increase in euroskepticism, Özler points out. By being kept out of Europe, many Turks today feel less European. This is reflected -- amongst other things -- in Europe becoming less popular as a tourist destination. Turks now tend to go to countries like Croatia or Morocco instead of France and Germany. So, ultimately, the EU is losing out, too. More importantly, though, the unfair visa policy has discredited the EU in the eyes of those who once respected it for promoting cultural exchange, civil-society dialogue and the idea of a borderless Europe. “On the one hand the EU is promoting civil-society dialogue and people-to-people contact; on the other hand it’s erecting a barrier in the form of visas. Here, the EU is really standing in the way of Europeanization,” Özler remarks.
Visa requirements breach of European law
The problematic practice of demanding visas from Turks has come under even stronger attack, because according to many legal experts, it constitutes a breach of European law. Wolfang Voegeli, director of the Euromaster Program at Hamburg University, says the visa requirements for Turkish nationals are not in keeping with the Association Agreement and the Additional Protocol signed by Turkey and the European Union in 1963 and 1970. These two treaties formalized relations between Turkey and the European countries and aimed at Turkey’s eventual accession to the bloc.
In the Additional Protocol, the signatories committed themselves to “refrain from introducing between themselves any new restrictions on the freedom of establishment and the freedom to provide services.” As Voegeli explains, this particular provision, known as the standstill clause, has provided the basis on which a number of Turkish individuals have taken their cases to the European Court of Justice -- usually with success.
Since the “freedom to provide services” can be interpreted both as an active right to offer services and a passive right to consume services, any Turkish national should be allowed to enter the Schengen area freely. “Anyone entering the European Union will at some point consume services there, even if it is just the taxi ride from the airport to the hotel. And since in 1973, Turkish nationals did not need visas to enter most European countries, the EU-wide visa requirement for Turks, which was introduced in 2001, amounts to a new restriction.”
This interpretation of the applicable law has been confirmed in a number of rulings by the European Court of Justice as well as by national courts in Germany and the Netherlands, which have ruled that the visa requirement for Turkish citizens amounts to a violation of EU law. Unfortunately, however, the European Union has so far been unwilling to act upon these judgments and is currently appealing the decisions. When asked to comment on recent developments, representatives of the EU in Turkey refused to discuss the issue with Sunday’s Zaman and relegated the question to the authorities in Brussels.
The acting spokesman for the home affairs commissioner of the European Commission in Brussels, Marcin Grabiec, finally commented in vague terms that the implementation of recent judgments was “one of the topics which the commission was willing to discuss further with Turkey and the member states in the framework of our dialogue on visa issues.”
Visa wavers in exchange for illegal migrants?
The visa dialogue referred to here is one of the issues that has in and of itself caused heated debate in Turkish politics. During a recent round of talks, the EU has promised “visa facilitation” to Turkey if in return Turkey accepts the condition put forward by the European Union: the signing of the Readmission Agreement. In doing so Turkey would commit itself to re-accept illegal migrants that have entered the EU using Turkey as a transit country -- something that the EU naturally has immense interest in. While the negotiations on the deal have already been concluded, Turkey refuses to sign the agreement until the EU makes a binding commitment to wave visa requirements for Turkish citizens. That, however, the EU is not prepared to do, and in fact, cannot do at the moment. In order for the EU to start serious negotiations on the visa question with Turkey, the commission would need a mandate from the member states. But Germany and France in particular are blocking such a deal, fearing that if the door were opened a little, they would not be able to stem the tide of migrants pouring into Europe.
While the government’s strategy of trying to link the visa issue to the signing of the Readmission Agreement may be understandable from a political perspective, Gümrükçü says things should never have come to this. “The rights that Turks have fought for so bitterly in the past cannot now be made the subject of political negotiations. No law-abiding state may negotiate court rulings, and particularly the EU cannot do so if it understands itself as a community that shares and upholds the principles of law.”
Legally, every Turkish passport holder should be allowed to enter Europe without visa. By negotiating this right, Turkey can only lose more than it can hope to win. The way forward must thus be for Turkish diplomats and individuals to insist on these rights at every possible opportunity. Only then can Turks hope to gain what, in fact, has been rightfully theirs for a long time.