By Gurur Altun
The European Commission has recommended that Turkish citizens be granted visa-free travel in the EU, but with rising anti-immigrant sentiment in Europe, and backsliding on judicial independence and press freedoms in Turkey, serious obstacles remain.
May began with good news for Turkey and Turkish citizens. According to a diplomatic source close to the negotiations, Turkey’s demand for visa-free travel for Turkish citizens in the Schengen zone would be backed by the European Commission. The official announcement was made May 4 by Commission First Vice President Frans Timmermans.
The move came just days before Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu announced that he will be stepping down, both as prime minister and as AKP leader. Visa liberalisation was a key project of Davutoğlu’s time in the top spot, and is still seen as his success – though any afterglow was short-lived, as he has been effectively ousted in favour of ever-increasing power in the hands of President Erdoğan.
On May 3, Turkey lifted all visa requirements to EU countries, including Cyprus, but this does not equate to recognition. The changes published in the official gazette are planned to come into force after Turkish nationals are granted visa-free travel by the EU. If the EU accepts it, the plan will cover the Schengen zone but not the UK and can be expected to be in practice as early as June.
Turkey and the EU made a deal on refugee exchange in March this year, in which Turkey promised to accept the repatriated refugees with no permits from EU, in return for the same number of Syrian refugees. On the financial side, Turkey was offered three billion Euros to accept the repatriated refugees.
In April, Turkey made a diplomatic request to the EU, threatening to abandon the agreement if Turkish citizens were not allowed to travel freely in the Schengen zone. The bloc then put a list of 72 conditions Turkey had to meet before it granted the request. On the day the approval was announced by the Commission, there were still five conditions to be met by the Turkish government.
Timmermans stressed the fact that there were no free rides, and that these five conditions have to be met and that only Turkish citizens who own biometric passports (which store fingerprint data), will be eligible for visa-free travel.
The European Parliament and EU governments have the right to reject the proposal, and the UK and Ireland, who are not in the Schengen zone, are not included in the visa-free travel area. Moreover, there have been suggestions that the process should initially be limited to specific groups like students or business travelers.
Last week Germany and France, worried by potentially higher numbers of Turkish citizens and asylum seekers staying illegally in Europe, proposed a snap-back mechanism that would allow governments to suspend visa-free travel for six months in case of problems.
The mechanism has been accepted, meaning that EU governments can re-establish visa requirements if certain conditions – such as a high number of asylum applications from Turkish citizens – arise.
Although the new practice will allow the EU to control the refugee problem more efficiently, there are members of the European Parliament who will put particular emphasis on the fulfillment of conditions such as freedom of speech, security, and the right to a fair trial.
Jailed Turkish journalists, deported foreign journalists – the last one being David Lepeska – and libel cases inside and beyond Turkey’s borders do not make the situation easier for the country, risking the approval of the European Commission’s recommendation.
Early this week, a Turkish parliamentary committee approved a proposal to strip members of the parliament of their immunity from prosecution, a move seen to primarily target the People’s Democratic Party (HDP).
The HDP is accused by the AKP of being the political arm of Kurdistan Workers’ Party, the PKK, considered a terrorist group by Turkey and its Western allies. In a recent article for the Financial Times, Peter Spiegel and Alex Barker write that Turkey still has not revised its laws on terrorism and organised crime to protect “fundamental rights”, deemed to be the most important benchmark yet to be fulfilled.
The week’s brawl in the Turkish parliament – which broke out as the commission debated whether to lift immunity or not – is going to leave a big question mark for member states of the European Parliament, who have the last say about the issue.
The timing of Turkey’s visa liberalisation debates is critical. The Brexit referendum is scheduled for June 23. In his Daily Mail article, the chair of the UK’s Leave campaign, Michael Gove, writes about the immigration threat and the possibility of Turkey joining the EU. In an environment where anti-immigration parties are making gains across Europe, a country with a population of almost 80 million will intimidate such parties and their supporters.
Furthermore, Turkey has yet to completely fulfill the requirements. These requirements include judicial co-operation: here co-operation with Cyprus will be problematic, since Turkey does not recognize Cyprus. Also included are anti-corruption measures, overhauling personal data measures to prevent police abuse, and overhauling legislation to narrow the definition of terrorism.
As Timmermans pointed out, “Turkey made spectacular progress on meeting the benchmarks of visa liberalisation roadmap, but there is still work to be done as a matter of urgency.” That work is in critical areas where Turkey has a hard time improving itself.
The recommendation of the European Commission is very encouraging but with waves of anti-immigrant sentiment in Europe and Turkey’s failure to prove its commitment to European Union values, this joy could be very short lived.