Turkey’s visa liberalisation: An insult to the EU’s eastern neighbours?

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

The EU needs to stop acting like a desperate tourist in the bazaar if it wants to achieve its goals. [David Veksler/Flickr]

While the EU may think that remaining silent on the more challenging issues of the visa liberalisation deal might be a price worth paying for dealing with the refugee crisis, it reflects  the bloc’s desperation, writes Igor Merheim-Eyre.

Igor Merheim-Eyre is a PhD candidate in International Relations at the University of Kent.

Back on 8 March, European leaders met for a European Council meeting hoping to find a solution to the uncontrolled migratory flows facing Europe. While the Czech Prime Minister and some others declared the Western Balkans route officially ‘closed’, Angela Merkel and the European Commission’s President, Jean-Claude Juncker, were less optimistic.

However, the presence of the now former Turkish prime minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, highlighted the central role EU leaders see Turkey playing in halting the masses of refugees seeking to reach the promised land of the EU – a view that has only been reaffirmed as the controversial EU-Turkey is slowly being implemented.

Turkey, with its new found confidence (or, arrogance, depending on who one speaks to) have made the most of the bad situation. Aware of the EU leaders’ desperation in getting to grips with the refugee crisis, Davutoğlu was not afraid to present a new set of demands, including more money and speedy visa-free travel for Turks travelling to the EU. In fact, the Turkish proposals stipulated visa-free travel by June 2016, which the European Council endorsed on 18 March.

European leaders, who have been sleep-walking through most of the crisis, were taken aback by Turkey’s bargaining – but, unlike Europeans holiday-makers unaccustomed to haggling in the bazaars of Bodrum, EU leaders at least tried to postpone their decision (as they so often do, hoping for the problem to solve itself, or to go away).

Nevertheless, given the EU’s traditional attachment of human rights conditions to visa liberalisation with any third country, the question of visa-free travel for Turkish citizens has clearly created a lot of conflict not only in the Council, but also beyond, particularly in social media.

Under the EU-Turkey Visa Liberalisation Dialogue signed in 2013, fundamental rights form one of five blocks of conditions that also include questions of document security, migration management, public order and security, and readmission of irregular migrants. This, of course is nothing new: the conditions are the same for all countries seeking visa-free travel with the EU, including the Western Balkans countries and those in the Eastern Partnership (EaP), such as Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine.

In the second report by the Commission on Turkey’s implementation of the Visa Liberalisation Roadmap, the best ‘recommendations’ the rapporteurs could think of included for Turkey to revise its terrorism legislation, improving the situation of Turkish Roma and taking ‘inspiration’ from the EU acquis on equal treatment of people – a bewildering assessment for those accusing the Turkish government of waging a war on free speech and its Kurdish population

Even more interesting is the miraculous pace of implementing reforms on the Turkish side. Where last week the Commission reported Turkey met 36 out of 72 conditions, two days before the 4 May deadline it was 62 out of 72!

The EU’s desperation in place of dealing with the problems at hand merely discredits its wider foreign policy agenda, particularly in the eastern neighbourhood. Being more dramatic, one can perhaps even make the case that it is insulting for countries such as Georgia or Ukraine, who have so far been denied EU visa-free travel due to on-going minor disparities with EU fundamental rights’ principles, and despite on-going efforts to reform.

For example, prior to the granting of Moldova’s visa-free regime in 2014, the EU obsessed about issues of gay rights. When asked about a visa-free travel for the citizens of Belarus and Azerbaijan, one EU official noted to the author that such a move would merely discredit EU ‘methodology’ because of their human rights abuses. Now, however, it seems that simply ignoring the methodology is justified.

Unfortunately, that misses the point. If the EU believes that gay rights or the Roma issue has nothing to do with visa liberalisation (as another EU official noted), then it should remove such criteria rather than be selective about its importance which, above all, undermines EU efforts to promote reforms in the neighbourhood. In the case of Ukraine, the EU is critical of its ‘copy and paste’ attitude to its catechism of reform, but a signal by the EU that these conditions may apply to some but not to others is self-defeating.

Even more so, one may argue that it is insulting to those countries who have invested a lot of time and effort to implement EU-set agenda. In fact, the efforts to upgrade border management capacities of these countries (another condition of EU visa liberalisation) are increasingly paying off. In 2015 there were merely 1,920 illegal border crossings from Belarus, Moldova and Ukraine into the EU, in contrast to the 69,000 crossing over from Turkey in January 2016 alone, and taking the Western Balkans route onto the EU.

Therefore, if the EU wants to continue with these successes (which is clearly in its interest), it must stop acting as a desperate European tourist trying to escape the haggling of the bazaar, and be firm on its agenda – not merely what it wants to achieve but, crucially, how. While the EU may be wishing to score a quick victory on the migrant crisis, it might in fact end up retreating on those fronts it was advancing.

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