Turkey, EU set to negotiate visa liberalisation
Turkey must negotiate a contentious readmission agreement in order to proceed with visa normalisation with the EU.
By Enis Senderdem for SES Türkiye in Istanbul -- 04/12/12
The EU will submit a roadmap in the coming weeks that could pave the way for visa-free travel for Turkish citizens.
Greek police collect illegal immigrants from the highway outside the village of Nea Vyssa on April 12, 2012 after crossing the border from Turkey to Greece. [AFP]
Tough EU visa regulations push many Turkish tourists and businessmen to countries with less strict policies. [AFP]
Immigration has been an issue for years. A decade ago, Turkish immigrants slept outside the German embassy, paying 3 million TL a night for blankets, in hopes of getting a visa. [AFP file photo]
The announcement came after Turkey's EU Minister Egemen Bagis met with the EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Füle and European Commissioner for Home Affairs Cecilia Malmström in Strasbourg on November 20th to move the candidate country's accession process forward.
Although Bagis wore a tie adorned with turtle figures to symbolise the slow pace of EU accession negotiations, crucial agreements were reached. The EU representatives said the Commission would soon be able to hand over the roadmap on visa liberalisation to Turkey.
"Our primary expectation is the removal of these illegal, unjust and irrational visas," Bagis told reporters.
Ankara and some legal experts have long argued the EU is in violation of a 1963 association agreement that allows for Turkish nationals to stay up to three months in member states without a visa. The agreement's non-implementation has remained a sore spot in EU-Turkish relations, creating resentment as Turkish nationals face bureaucratic hurdles, long waits and high costs to obtain visas while Europeans freely enter Turkey.
But experts say that even with the roadmap, both the EU and Turkey must overcome a number of technical and political obstacles, including implementation of a contentious readmission agreement.
"That means Turkey has to readmit any person who entered EU via Turkey, which is a lot to ask [by the EU]," Daniela Obradovic, professor of law at University of Amsterdam, told SES Türkiye.
Every year tens of thousands of illegal immigrants from the Middle East, Asia and Africa cross from Turkey into the EU, mostly through the porous Greek border. According to Frontex, the EU's border control agency, 40 percent of the nearly 140,000 detected illegal immigrants entering the EU in 2011 came through the Greek-Turkish border.
Under the terms of the readmission agreement, Turkey would be obliged to take back not only Turkish illegal immigrants, but also the citizens of other countries who came to the EU via Turkey.
In June this year, Turkey and the EU initialled a landmark agreement after seven years of negotiations on the readmission of illegal immigrants in a quid pro quo that would pave the way for visa-free travel for Turkish citizens. Technical staff on both sides is still hammering out the final details, which will be followed by tough negotiations between political leaders to reach a final agreement.
While the final details of the readmission agreement remain to be worked out, given the number of illegal immigrants in the EU that entered from Turkey, it stands to be a big pill for the country to swallow. The roadmap the EU will present Turkey is expected to be equally demanding.
According to Florian Trauner, an assistant professor at the Institute for European Integration Research at the University of Vienna, Turkey will have to sign the visa facilitation agreement as an intermediary step and fulfil a broad set of benchmarks in areas such as border management, documentation and public order.
"Technical dimension of the process requires substantial adaptation and reforms from Turkey and might slow down the overall process," Trauner told SES Türkiye, adding that while Turkey hopes to achieve visa-free travel by 2014-2015, it will be difficult to reach this target.
Geral Knaus, founder of the European Stability Initiative, a Berlin based think-tank, agreed, noting that the speed of achieving visa liberalisation will depend on the pace of reforms in Turkey.
"The reforms are demanding, reaching from passport security, to border management and fighting illegal migration, in particular transit migration to the EU," he said.
Technical issues aside, countries like Austria, Germany, France and the Netherlands remain opposed to full visa liberalisation with Turkey for domestic political reasons.
"This is a political matter," Can Baydarol, a co-founder of the Turkey-EU Platform, told SES Türkiye.
"If Turkey signs the readmission agreement … illegal immigrants who crossed the Turkish-Greek border and settled in Europe will be deported and come back to Turkey. However, the reward will only be the promise to eliminate visas," he said.
Trauner said the states opposed to visa liberalisation "are concerned with the immigration potential of Turkey and are often under pressure by populist far-right parties to take a tough stance on any migration-related issue."
Turkey's large population combined with the EU experience of integrating Central European and Balkan countries over the past decade have led to enlargement fatigue and backlash against the influx of immigrants at a time the eurozone is facing economic crisis.
"Some member states have been dissatisfied with the experiences they gained in the wake of the visa liberalisation for the Balkan countries, when the number of asylum-seekers from the region strongly increased," Trauner said.
"This experience and the current discussions whether or not to temporarily suspend visa-free travel for some Balkan countries will have an impact on Turkey's visa liberalisation process."
But with Turkey's growing economy and Europe in malaise, some observers question whether visa liberalisation would lead to large scale immigration. And ultimately the EU needs Turkey's co-operation to stem the flow of illegal third-country immigrants through better border control and implementation of the readmission agreement.
This has given renewed impetus to Turkey's long sought goal of visa-free travel to Europe.
"The EU desire[s] to close the main crossing point for irregular migrants to the EU, which is currently the Turkish-Greek land border. For that, the EU needs Turkish co-operation. But the reasons also include a desire to re-energise the flagging accession process," Knaus said.
Trauner agreed, noting the EU is interested in "a smooth implementation" of the readmission agreement.
"Turkey's strategy to link the implementation of this agreement with the visa liberalisation process has contributed to convincing some member states to soften their resistance towards Turkish visa-free travel," she said.