Does Turkey really want visa liberalisation?

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

A street in Ankara. [Georgi Gotev]

By lifting the visa barrier to Ukraine, the EU tells Ankara the same is possible for the Turkish citizens, writes Daniel Penev.

Daniel Penev is a young Bulgarian journalist.

Unlike Ukraine and Georgia which are coming very close to visa-free travel in the EU’s Schengen zone, Turkey appears to be moving in the opposite direction.

If Ukraine, a country with a population of nearly 45 million that has been struggling with a deep political and economic crisis since the outbreak of the conflict in its east and Russia’s annexation of Crimea, can overcome the barriers to visa liberalisation, then Turkey should also be able to do the same.

Not only does Turkey still have a lot of work to do before the visa barrier is lifted for its citizens, but it has also failed to prove its full commitment to the project of European integration.

Hence the question: is visa liberalisation indeed a priority for the Turkish government? On a related note, does Turkey really aspire to EU membership, or is it only pretending to do so and trying to exploit the current migration and refugee crisis to its own benefit?

EU-Turkey cooperation on migration and visa

The EU and Turkey launched a Visa Liberalisation Dialogue on 16 December 2013, in parallel with the signature of the EU-Turkey Readmission Agreement. The Dialogue is based on the Roadmap towards a visa free regime with Turkey, which outlines 72 benchmarks Turkey has to meet if it wants visa-free travel for its citizens in the Schengen zone.

In November 2015, the two sides agreed to deepen their collaboration to better manage the refugee crisis and curb irregular migration from Turkey into the EU.

The EU-Turkey Statement of 18 March 2016 obliged Turkey to keep the approximately three million refugees within its borders and readmit migrants crossing illegally into the EU in exchange for financial aid under the Facility for Refugees in Turkey, a visa-free regime, and reinvigorated accession negotiations.

The Statement has helped reduce illegal crossings from Turkey to the EU but it has also come under criticism from international human rights organisations. At the same time, Turkey still needs to meet seven of the 72 benchmarks for a visa-free regime.

Most importantly, it needs to revise its anti-terror legislation to align it with EU standards, narrowing its definition of terrorism and thus preventing the widespread violation of fundamental human rights and freedoms in the guise of state security measures.

The EU, while also open to criticism due to its ambivalent attitudes toward Turkey, has been actively trying to prove its readiness to establish a visa-free regime once Turkey has fulfilled all benchmarks.

Going beyond fancy rhetoric, the EU has moved on to deliver on its commitments in compliance with the agreement reached at the EU-Turkey Summit of 29 November 2015 and the provisions of the EU-Turkey Statement of March 2016.

The European Commission’s 2016 report on Turkey, issued on 9 November, indicates that the EU has already allocated €2.2 billion under the Facility for Refugees in Turkey, of which €1.2 billion have been contracted and €677 million have been disbursed.

Moreover, the European Commission opened Chapter 17 (economic and monetary affairs) on 14 December 2015 and Chapter 33 (financial and budgetary provisions) on 30 June 2016. It has thus made good of its promise to revise the extremely slow and contentious accession talks with Turkey which have seen the closure of just one chapter (science and research) since their start in October 2005.

Rule of law and human rights

Besides its consistent failure to meet the remaining seven visa-liberalisation benchmarks, Turkey has moved further away from the EU through its growing authoritarianism.

Ruthless, heavy-handed governance, already reflected in the government’s suppression of the Gezi park protests in June 2013, has gained a more concrete and obnoxious form in the aftermath of the failed coup in July this year, which left 241 dead and over 2,000 wounded.

The EU condemned the attempted coup and expressed its firm support for the government, while stressing, and rightly so, that the Turkish authorities’ efforts to restore peace, stability and justice should comply with international norms and standards. What the Turkish authorities under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan have done instead is the very opposite of what democratic norms and international standards prescribe.

Under the state of emergency, declared on 20 July and extended for another three months on 3 October, and the temporary suspension of Turkey’s obligation to comply with the European Convention on Human Rights, the Turkish authorities launched a massive attack on civil society and the media.

More than 125,000 citizens have been dismissed, suspended, or detained, among them military personnel, judges, prosecutors, teachers, academics, journalists, and writers. Over 90 journalists were arrested by the end of October, and more than 2,500 journalists have lost their jobs since July.

In addition, 46 TV channels and radio stations, five news agencies, 55 newspapers, and 18 magazines were closed, access to more than 20 news websites was blocked, the licenses of 29 publishing houses were revoked, and hundreds of NGOs were closed and their assets seized.

In addition, international organizations have reported on large-scale violations of human rights, including tortures of detainees and the Turkish security forces’ disproportionate use of violence in the predominantly Kurdish southeast parts of the country.

To add oil to an already strong fire, President Erdoğan has played with the idea of reintroducing the death penalty – a move that would essentially mean an automatic end to Turkey’s accession talks with the EU.

A look to the future

A visa-free regime between the EU and Turkey, provided the Turkish government fully completes all EU requirements, will likely bring numerous benefits to both sides, given their extensive economic and business relations.

Turkey is the EU’s fifth-largest trading partner, and approximately 55% of EU economic legislation is already reflected in Turkish legislation. Around three-quarters of the foreign direct investment (FDI) in Turkey comes from the EU. In addition, some 150,000 Turkish entrepreneurs employ 600,000 workers inside the EU.

A visa-free regime between the EU and Turkey will only result from genuine commitment from both sides. While the EU has proceeded to fulfill its promises in words and deeds, the Turkish government’s behavior makes one wonder whether it has failed to complete the remaining requirements due to limited capabilities or, rather, limited willingness.

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