Commission admits visa-free travel for Turks depends on national parliaments

Frans TImmermans, 4 May 2016. [Commission]

The European Commission today (4 May) proposed that Turkish nationals would enjoy visa-free travel to the EU’s Schengen zone by the end of June, praising Ankara for its fast delivery on meeting the necessary conditions. But Commission experts admit that national parliaments could upturn the deal.

The Commission proposed to the European Parliament and to the Council, where member states sit, to lift visa requirements for the citizens of Turkey. The final decision should be adopted before the end of June, as part of a deal under which Turkey commits to take back migrants arriving to the Greek islands from Turkish territory.

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Visa-free travel will apply to all EU member states except Ireland and the UK, and to the four Schengen associated countries (Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland).

In the short time since EU leaders agreed the deal with the Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu last 18 March, Turkey implemented most of the EU benchmarks on the way toward lifting the visa restrictions. The five remaining benchmarks appear to be a formality, listening to EU officials who praised Turkey for an outstanding ability to deliver.

Turkey has seized the occasion of the migrant crisis to “re-energise” its relations with the EU, with an obvious first major step lifting the visa barrier. Many Turks who travel to the EU feel offended by the heavy procedures and paperwork needed for obtaining a Schengen visa. Another dimension of “re-energising” relations is speeding up the stalled EU accession process.

In recent days it has become obvious that Turkey implemented its part of the migration deal, and has almost shut the main Aegean route for people fleeing war and poverty in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East and Asia.

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The EU executive is trying hard to convey the message that there is no “discount” for Turkey in terms of meeting the necessary requirements, that the decision contains a safeguard clause in case of massive arrivals of Turkish nationals to the EU, and that visa-free travel for Turks is linked to the implementation of the migration deal.

‘Shouting over the fence’

Turkey, however, is the scene of authoritarian tendencies under the leadership of its President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his AKP party. Asked how comfortable the EU executive is with making openings to Turkey, the Commission First Vice President Frans Timmermans said:

“In the past years on not engaging with Turkey, of just shouting over the fence at each other, what has that done for democracy, the rule of law, freedom of the media in Turkey? Nothing. It has only worsened the situation. We need to engage with them. If they want to come closer to the EU, they will have to demonstrate that they adhere to our values, that they adhere to our norms”, he said.

He said that this is why he believed that the EU should open the negotiations chapters 23 and 24 with Turkey as soon as possible. Chapter 23 is titled “Judiciary and Fundamental Rights” and chapter 24 “Justice, Freedom and Security”. He continued: “And then we can take them to task. If you want to be part of this family, these are the rules”. spoke to Amanda Paul, Senior Policy Analyst at the European Policy Centre (EPC), who is of Turkish origin. She stressed how fast was Turkey’s progress toward visa-free regime.

“Turkey has done a super job. When there is a prize to be won that they want, Turks can do anything”, she said.

Following the Commission proposal, the decision rests with the Justice and Home Affairs Council who will examine the issue on 19 June and vote by qualified majority.

Paul said she was more concerned about what would happen in the European Parliament, who also need to endorse the decisions.

“Some national parliaments also have to ratify it, including the Netherlands”, she said, mentioning Timmermans’ home country.

“Let’s hope it gets through, because a lot is at stake”, she added.

The EPC analyst also made a point that Turkey would not implement the readmission agreement, according to which it should take back on its territory nationals from third countries expelled from the EU.

“For Turkey, if there is no visa liberalisation, why should they implement readmission? And they won’t”, she said.

Asked by EURACTIV, a Commission official who asked not to be named, explained the role of national parliaments recalling the statement of heads of state of 18 March, according to which the fulfillment of the lifting of the visa requirement for Turkish citizens at the latest by the end of June 2016, provided all the benchmarks have been met.

“We are of course aware, that this is something on which are a number of national parliaments will have views”, he said. He added that this was one of the reasons why the Commission was submitting this proposal today, to make sure that the adequate time for national parliaments to react, generally eight weeks, was available.

The official also explained that Turks would travel visa-free only when the country would issue its nationals biometric passports containing the fingerprint.  Issuing such passports would take time and it would be inconceivable to imagine an avalanche of Turkish citizens coming to the EU in the coming months, he said.

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