EU diplomats expect Turkey to press the issue of visa liberalisation during the upcoming summit in Varna on 26 March. It is still unclear if this is a real priority for Ankara or just negotiating tactics as part of a bigger picture.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan will meet European Council chief Donald Tusk, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov in the Bulgarian Black Sea city of Varna on 26 March.
Bulgaria currently holds the rotating Presidency of the Council of the EU.
Although EU-Turkey relations have come under considerable strain, it has become obvious that the bloc has raised no conditions for holding the summit.
Conversely, Turkey has made scrapping visa requirements one of the conditions for its deal with the EU, under which Ankara has largely stopped the uncontrolled flow of migrants from its soil to nearby Greek islands.
Within the context of the refugee crisis, Turkey was bullish to lift the EU visa barrier for its own nationals.
The 18 March 2016 EU-Turkey statement reads that “the fulfilment of the visa liberalisation roadmap will be accelerated vis-à-vis all participating member states with a view to lifting the visa requirements for Turkish citizens at the latest by the end of June 2016, provided that all benchmarks have been met.”
After the 15 July 2016 attempted coup d’état, the visa issue no longer featured prominently in EU-Turkey relations, as Ankara did not want to see alleged Gülenists [supporters of America-based cleric Fetullah Gülen] fleeing the country and escaping from prosecution.
But this time Turkey may return to its demand that the visa barrier be lifted.
On 7 February, presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin was quoted as saying that Turkey had fulfilled all conditions on visa-free travel to Europe, adding that the government hopes Brussels will respond and lend “momentum” to better ties between Ankara and the EU.
“The 72 criteria for visa-free travel have been completed,” Kalin told reporters in Ankara, saying Turkey had informed the EU.
Those requirements are organised in five thematic groups: document security; migration management; public order and security; fundamental rights and readmission of irregular migrants.
Who is a terrorist?
Apart from the bigger issue of fundamental rights, one of the most difficult criteria is the definition of terrorism, the issue being that the establishment in Ankara uses the label of “terrorist” on whoever they see as a political foe.
The two sides also have disagreed which “terrorists” should be extradited and which not.
Turkey considers it is in much better position to obtain visa-free travel compared to the Western Balkan countries, the citizens of most of which (except Kosovo) already travel to the EU Schengen space visa-free.
EURACTIV asked Commission spokesperson Margaritis Schinas if indeed Turkey had fulfilled the 72 criteria, and in particular if the definition of terrorism was still an issue.
Schinas basically avoided answering. Diplomats said off the record that it was not a good idea to complicate the EU-Turkey climate ahead of the summit by entering such delicate matters.
If the visa barrier was lifted, there is a risk that many Turkish nationals would leave their country to seek and obtain asylum in the EU, if they could prove that they qualify for protection.
This scenario could be troublesome for EU administration, but also a big embarrassment for the Turkish authorities.
The Turkish authorities can of course “filter” their citizens qualifying for visa-free travel by issuing them biometric passports, and denying such to presumed troublemakers. EU policy requires visa-free travellers to be equipped with such passports.
Officially Turkey wants full membership in the EU, although many of the EU leaders don’t want to hear about such a thing, even it the distant future.Decisions on enlargement-related issues are taken by unanimity.
Following the publication of this article, Ivailo Kalfin, former foreign minister of Bulgaria, tweeted, suggesting that the visa issue could be part of the bargaining for the second EUR 3 billion tranche Ankara expects from the EU to assist the Syrian refugees on its territory.
Market is open – w/ the previous agreement cons. refugees and EUR 3 bn abt to expire. https://t.co/vwwhYcCiwm
— Ivailo Kalfin (@IvailoKalfin) February 8, 2018
On this issue, the EU-Turkey statement of 16 March 2016 says: “Once these resources are about to be used to the full, and provided the above commitments are met, the EU will mobilise additional funding for the Facility of an additional 3 billion euro up to the end of 2018.”