Time for EU to deliver on visa liberalisation promises

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Turkey argues the exceptional security measures are necessary in the face of rising threats from the Islamic State group and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). [Sercan Engin/Flickr]

The refugee issue continues to haunt the EU. The bloc should press on with its plans to give Turkey visa liberalisation, as the refugee deal has reinvigorated EU-Turkey relations. This will positively impact on other areas too, writes Çiğdem Nas.

Associate Professor Dr. Çiğdem Nas is Secretary-General of the Economic Development Foundation (IKV), a non-governmental research organisation specialised in EU and Turkey-EU relations.

On 29 August, some 6,500 migrants were saved off the coast of Libya by the Italian coastguard. While the flow of refugees continues, the EU’s resolve to take common action in this area falters with each passing day.

According to latest figures published by the European Commission, as of 29 August, more than half of the 160,000 refugees agreed under the relocation commitment by the member states have still not been relocated.

The UNHCR puts the overall number of relocations from Italy remains at 961, corresponding to 2% of the target of 39,600 agreed upon in September 2015 while a total of 3,016 asylum-seekers, 4.5% against the targeted 66,400, have been relocated from Greece to other EU countries since the beginning of November 2015.

Under these conditions, the resilience of the Turkey-EU refugee deal becomes even more indispensable. The deal caused a striking decrease in the use of the Aegean route from the Turkish coast to the Greek islands from a total of 67,415 monthly arrivals in January to 3,650 in April and 1,554 in June.

In August a slight increase has been observed with 2,289 monthly and 130 daily arrivals between 15 and 21 August according to the UNHCR.

At the moment, the longevity of the Turkey-EU refugee deal rests on the fulfilment of the visa liberalisation commitment by the EU for Turkish citizens. Although the Commission’s report regarding Turkey’s fulfilment of the visa liberalisation criteria listed five remaining conditions that had yet to be fulfilled. One critical condition is the revision of anti-terror legislation and has been the cause of controversy between the two sides.

During European Commissioner for Migration, Home Affairs and Citizenship Dimitris Avramopoulos’s visit to Turkey, Minister for EU Affairs Omer Celik said that Turkey had already kept its side of the visa liberalisation roadmap by passing extensive reforms and that it would not implement the EU-Turkey Readmission Agreement unless the EU lifts the visa requirement for Turkish citizens regarding their short-term visits to the Schengen area.

In a TV interview, during his visit to Turkey, Avramopoulos talked about the EU’s support in Turkey’s fight against terror, but also added that Turkey should abide by European norms in this area, meaning that it should make the necessary revision to its anti-terror legislation by narrowing down the scope of terrorism-related offences in line with the Council of Europe’s standards.

During the Gymnich Meeting held in Bratislava on 2-3 September, Celik expressed his hope for the emergence of a consensus between the two sides. One possible avenue for a resolution emerged as submitting the issue of revision of anti-terror legislation to the Council of Europe, a political organisation where Turkey had been a member since 1949. Thus building a consensus through a formula involving European institutions seems to be likely in the near future.

How to Save the Turkey-EU Refugee Deal?

It is a well-known fact that Turkey’s diminishing EU membership prospects have cut the bloc’s relevance in Turkey and its ability to promote reforms. In the wake of the coup attempt, the issues of democracy, rights and freedoms stand on a razor’s edge and the EU can make a positive impact in the direction of greater rights and freedoms only if it engages with Ankara and delivers support and cooperation in Turkey’s fight against existential problems within and outside its borders.

Turkey currently hosts nearly 3 million Syrian refugees. The multiple security challenges it has faced did not keep Turkey from implementing an open refugee policy which was based on humanitarian concerns.

The intense diplomacy between Turkey and the EU that took place between October 2015 and April 2016 produced the Turkey-EU statement in March and helped to contain irregular migration across the Aegean.

The same kind of close cooperation and coordination is likely to deliver results in the further implementation of the refugee deal and the visa liberalisation process. Lifting of visas for Turkish citizens could be the least that the EU can accomplish as a tangible sign of appreciation for Turkey’s cooperation and burden-sharing regarding the refugee crisis.

The refugee deal is one of the few areas which display dynamism and progress in Turkey-EU relations. It has the potential to breathe some fresh air and revitalise the relationship in other areas as well. The chance should not be wasted.

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