“If Turkey and the EU become close partners, if Turkey understands and addresses the EU's fears, and if the EU understands what Turkey can and is willing to do, there is that process of exchange and trust-building. Then you don't need a visa. Those who say it is about political will misunderstand the dynamic behind the creation of Schengen and the creation of a Europe with less borders and visas,” said Gerald Knaus, founding chairman of the European Stability Initiative (ESI), an independent non-profit research and policy institute.
In June of last year, the Council authorized the European Commission, the executive arm of the 27-nation bloc, to begin talks with Turkey on visa liberalization. The Council presented Turkey a roadmap to a visa-free regime at the end of November of last year with steps established based on Balkan precedents.
Turkey is the only EU candidate country that has been kept outside the Schengen zone, in violation of the EU's own legal obligations. Even non-candidate countries are currently negotiating for visa-free travel.
Answering our questions, Knaus elaborated on the issue.
The visa liberalization roadmap of the Council of the European Union has been considered a breakthrough in relations. Why are Turkish officials so doubtful about it?
This is a moment that Turkish foreign policy makers can actually take credit for, as the goal of full visa liberalization with Turkey is now realistic and recognized by EU member states. However, there are some doubts at the Turkish administration with regard to whether a readmission agreement with the EU would be too costly, and at the end whether the EU would be serious and actually lift the visa requirement. These are justified concerns but the experience from other countries shows that there is no reason not to start the process, because it is highly likely that it will be concluded. Five Western Balkan countries got roadmaps in 2008 that were very similar to Turkey's, and all of them had visa-free travel three years later. They have set a precedent that Turkey can refer to. After all, if it worked for Bosnia, for Albania, it can also work for Turkey if it approaches it in the right way.
What would you say about the costs that a lot of people worry about?
The costs that some people are worrying about are not as high. In the past few years, 40,000 to 55,000 transit migrants illegally crossed the border from Turkey to Greece. Turkey fears that under a readmission agreement with the EU it would have to take almost all of them back. However, these numbers can be reduced dramatically. In fact they already have been.
You mentioned “the right way” to approach the problem? What is the key behind this success?
First, in the Balkans the political elite and the society in these countries took the issue seriously. They really wanted to see results; they wanted visa-free travel, so they carried out the required reforms. The second thing that made this thing a success is that the roadmap process addressed all the fears in Europe. It involved a lot of exchange of information between security experts, police and customs officials. The process itself generated knowledge and trust. So, the technical achievements, the pressure from the countries to be granted visa-free travel and the process itself were important. In Turkey, there is growing public pressure because people want visa liberalization, but there is also a wrongly pessimistic sense in Turkey that “well, it doesn't matter what we do; it won't work anyway.” This is a problem because it means you won't work with much determination and conviction as the leaders of the Balkan countries did. The process itself is in the EU's interest, and no one EU member state has a veto. In the end, member states vote by qualified majority, so Turkey could even afford a few no votes. The EU has gone out of its usual ways to offer Turkey the process, and it has put on the table a roadmap that is tough but fair. I believe that the EU is serious.
‘Turkey needs to be treated fairly'
Why is the EU more ready now for this process than three years ago, to the extent that it even sent a roadmap to Ankara?
There are a lot of people inside the EU making the argument that first, Turkey needs to be treated fairly, second, that it is a candidate country, and third, that the EU needs Turkey to address certain EU interests such as the porous border in Greece. The European Commission is a strong advocate for Turkey; it has pushed a lot for the roadmap and made sure that it is fair. Turkey's friends see a visa liberalization process as a chance to improve relations.
About convincing the European member states, are there any statistics about how many Turkish people really got lost and stayed illegally in European countries when they arrived in Europe?
Once you have visa-free travel, you don't need to take the risk; you can go and come back and go again as long as you do not stay longer than a total of three months within a six-month period in the EU. The statistics that you mention don't exist -- neither are there statistics about irregular migrants because they are undocumented, nor are there statistics about so-called visa “overstayers.” However, there are statistics on how many foreigners are caught by the police without an authorization to be in the EU -- be it people without any papers, without a visa or a residence permit, or people whose visa or residence permit has expired. The number of Turks found in such situations in Europe is about 10,000 a year, which is not that high compared to other countries' citizens. In 2011, for example, there were almost 45,000 detected irregular Afghans, 30,000 Moroccans, 24,000 Tunisians and 10,000 Brazilians. Turkey is roughly on par with Russia. The more serious fear of EU interior ministers is the possibility of an increase in asylum claims by Turkish citizens, and this is why there is a human rights perspective in the roadmap. This happened in the case of the Western Balkans, and it has become a very sensitive topic.
The EU wants Turkey to pass an asylum law. What is the importance of this?
Turkey is now in the G-20. It is the 16th largest economy in the world. It gives development aid to other countries. It hosts some 160,000 Syrian refugees. Yet at the same time asylum seekers in Turkey, both those from European countries and those from elsewhere, are not treated well -- they hardly receive aid, at the same time are not allowed to work, etc. So, the new asylum law is very important for Turkey. It will fix the shortcomings and show that Turkey is aware of its humanitarian obligations. It will also make Turkey a better partner for the EU for dealing with common issues of migration and asylum.
‘If you control your borders, readmission agreement not big deal'
You know there are skeptics in Turkey who say that if the Council wants to remove the visa requirement for Turkey, it can do it right away; there is no need for elaborate roadmaps or processes, but what is needed is political will. What do you think about this argument?
This is not how the EU has ever worked. I'll give you two examples. When Italy wanted to join Schengen, it had to persuade the Germans that their borders would be safe. It took Italy 10 years. For 10 years the Italian interior ministers and prime ministers were filling out questionnaires, were answering questions. When Poland wanted to join the EU and the Schengen zone, it was the same process. Today, Germany has no border with Poland. What we have here is a process of building trust, which cannot be done overnight. It's a process that is quite revolutionary. The EU's approach is: It creates a space without any border controls -- the Schengen zone -- and it makes it easier to cross its external borders for its neighbors, but it tries to make sure that this does not go to the detriment of security. So, instead of having borders and visas, you have better cooperation. That's the logic that's been there for 20 years; and that's the logic behind the visa liberalization processes and the roadmap with Turkey. If Turkey and the EU become close partners, if Turkey understands and addresses the EU's fears, and if the EU understands what Turkey can and is willing to do, there is that process of exchange and trust-building. Then you don't need a visa. Those who say it is about political will misunderstand the dynamic behind the creation of Schengen and the creation of a Europe with less borders and visas.
What do you see as a result of your meetings with officials in Ankara?
Many Turkish officials think that if the EU wants something, there is probably a concession that Turkey should make and in the end Turkey will get nothing in return. There is this sense of disappointment. For this issue, they say, “Should we really sign a readmission agreement if we don't have visa liberalization guaranteed?” However, the answer is: If you control your borders, then the readmission agreement will not be a big deal. Ankara's argument suggests that there is nothing Turkey can do. This is not a good argument to make.
‘If Montenegro and Albania could do it, how can Turkey fail to do so?'
But Ankara is still waiting for an action plan in order to sign the readmission agreement initialed with the EU, right? Is it still that important for Ankara, as now the document that the Council gave Ankara -- dated Nov. 30, 2012 -- is about a roadmap toward a visa-free regime?
No, there will not be an action plan -- it has become the roadmap. The roadmap was initially supposed to be called an “action plan” -- that's why the Council Conclusions of June 21, 2012, mention an “action plan.” However, Moldova and Ukraine have an action plan. The other Eastern partner countries of the EU will have action plans. The Western Balkans had roadmaps. And the member states realized that Turkey, as a negotiating accession country, belongs to the group of countries with a very clear European perspective and deserves a “roadmap.” This is good for Turkey for another reason, too, because there is a precedent that Turkey can refer to. It is the Western Balkan precedent, the five countries that also had “roadmaps” and received visa-free travel after meeting the conditions. So, Turkey too can expect to receive visa-free travel if it meets the conditions. It can expect that it will take two or three years like in the case of the Western Balkans. And it can expect to be assessed by the same criteria.
Could you talk about a few difficult conditions found in the Council's roadmap?
I do not think there are any really difficult conditions. Just think, if Montenegro and Albania could meet them, how can a big and developed country like Turkey fail to do so?
Would you say that the ball is in the Turkish court?
The ball is in the Turkish court in three ways. First, Turkey needs to take the roadmap seriously. Secondly, there is a need to start implementing these reforms starting with a new asylum law which will be a very big step forward; cooperation with Frontex [the European Agency for the Management of Operational Cooperation at the External Borders of the Member States of the European Union] at the border will also be a big step forward. And thirdly, Turkey needs to work on persuading the EU member states of its seriousness. This requires concentration and making it a priority, then success is possible. It is actually possible to finish roadmap implementation and see the visa requirement lifted in a short period of time.
You sound like you are personally involved in this issue and that you really believe in it. What makes you so convinced?
I have closely followed the Western Balkans visa liberalization process. I have seen how much visa-free travel means for the people there -- for ordinary citizens, but also for people who have to travel for professional reasons. I have also been impressed with the reforms that the governments managed to carry out. These are not reforms that only benefit the EU -- of course the countries themselves benefit from safer civil registries, securer passports, better border management, less irregular migration, more effective fights against organized crime and corruption, and more respect of human rights. I really wish to see the same happen with Turkey, and I also hope that this will be a way for Turkey and the EU to develop more trust again.
‘Greece strengthened borders, Turkey can do it, too'
Will it be difficult for Turkey to strengthen and control its borders?
Greece has significantly strengthened the border police along the land border with Turkey. They now use boats to patrol the river, they have dogs, they have night-vision equipment, and, unlike before, Greece now detains undocumented migrants. As a result, the numbers of illegal crossings have plummeted. In August 2012, there were still almost 7,000. In September it was 2,200, in October 137 and in November 71. There are now more illegal crossings by sea, but these numbers are far lower than the number of people that used to cross the land border.
What this shows is that it is possible to influence the flows of irregular migrants. Turkey can also influence them. And if Turkey stops being a major transit country, the EU will not have migrants to send back to Turkey. Apart from that, EU countries generally prefer to send people back to their home countries and not to a transit country, so the number of requested readmissions to Turkey would always be much lower than the number of people who crossed Turkey on their way to the EU and are actually caught there.
Born in Vienna, he is the founding chairman of the European Stability Initiative (ESI). Having studied in Oxford, Brussels and Bologna, he taught economics at universities in Ukraine and worked for five years in Bulgaria and Bosnia for international organizations. He has lived in İstanbul since 2004 and was co-author of the ESI Islamic Calvinist report in 2005. In 2011, he co-authored “Can Intervention Work?” He has co-authored more than 60 ESI reports as well as many scripts for TV documentaries on Southeast Europe, including on Turkey. He is also an associate fellow at the Carr Center at Harvard University's Kennedy School, where he lectured on state building and intervention as a visiting fellow in 2010-2011. Since 2007, he has focused strongly on visa liberalization issues in the Balkans, Moldova and Turkey.