EU-Turkey relations: towards visa liberalisation?

Selim Kuneralp 21.10.2011
I should like first to thank EPC for having organised this meeting on what is a very topical subject in Turkey-EU Relations. In recent years, the visa treatment meted out to Turkish nationals has become a source of increasing frustration and irritation that colour their view of the European Union.

Long delays in obtaining visas, humiliating procedures, high application fees, inexhaustible lists of formalities that need to be complied with and documents that need to be produced feed this resentment. Whereas the citizens of some countries that are very distant from the European continent enjoy unfettered access to the Union, Turkish nationals do not. This happens despite the fact that Turkey is linked to the EU by a Customs Union, is a negotiating candidate country and has been associated with the EU for almost fifty years.

Indeed, the Customs Union is supposed to create a level playing field and establish conditions of equal opportunity for the business communities of the two sides. That is also relevant in this regard. Whereas business people from EU countries can travel to and conduct their business in Turkey without encountering any travel restrictions, their Turkish counterparts face the humiliating procedures that I have just alluded to. It should also be remembered that in 2010 alone, the Customs Union resulted in a 20 billion euro trade surplus in favour of the EU in its bilateral trade with Turkey . The visa problem is undoubtedly a non-tariff barrier which is inconsistent with the spirit of the Customs Union and the Association Agreement that underpins it.

Let us take one example that is relevant to trade relations. Turkish truck drivers who have to spend most of their time travelling on the roads of Europe are only allowed to stay in Germany for a 45 day period out of every six months, and this after going through the cumbersome visa procedure imposed on them. This obstacle naturally raises the costs faced by transport companies and reduces the competitiveness of Turkish exports. German lorry drivers face no such obstacle in entering Turkish territory.

Students are also a category of people facing unreasonable expenses. A Turkish student wishing to study in the Netherlands as part of the Erasmus programme needs to pay a fee of around 400 euros for a visa valid for six months. Clearly, that kind of treatment is not going to make the EU more popular among the Turkish youth of today who will be the decision-makers of tomorrow.

The European Court of Justice in repeated rulings adopted over the years has struck down restrictions on the movement of Turkish service providers that are inconsistent with our Association Agreements. Essentially, what these rulings say is that EU countries should not introduce on Turkish nationals seeking to provide services on their territory, restrictions that did not exist at the time that the Additional Protocol between the EC and Turkey came into force in 1971, or in the case of countries that joined after 1971, restrictions that did not exist when they joined the Community. Unfortunately, these rulings have been applied in a very restrictive way that has not led to any concrete improvement for Turkish nationals: instead their confidence in the respect for the rule of law in EU countries has been undermined.

Over the years, the EU has conducted visa liberalisation talks with practically every Balkan country and has now moved beyond that region in its efforts to improve the visa treatment applied to the citizens of its broader neighbourhood. Naturally, we welcome this development which will encourage freedom of movement and help those countries and their citizens integrate with the EU, an objective that we in Turkey fully share.

Having said this, it is also a fact that to see the citizens of one country after another in the Balkans benefiting from visa free treatment regardless of the nature of their relationship with the EU feeds the frustration that Turkish people feel.

Naturally, Turkey has closely followed the steps taken by other countries that have obtained visa-free treatment for their citizens in recent years. The first such step taken by all is the introduction of biometric passports that provide much better security of identification than the previous models. Millions of passports have been replaced in Turkey with new ones and the process is expected to be completed by the end of next year, if not earlier. Turkey has also expressed its willingness to enter into a dialogue with the EU on the establishment of integrated border management structures that would greatly increase border security in Turkey and reduce the inflow of illegal immigration.

Illegal immigration is obviously a scourge for both Turkey and the EU. We do not like to see our territory being used every year by thousands of illegal immigrants who cross it on their way to the EU. Many of them end up staying in Turkey and living in the margins of society. That is why we have established a good cooperation with Frontex and are willing to deepen it.

Because we perceive this problem in exactly the same way as the EU, we have also agreed to negotiate with the Commission at great risk a Readmission Agreement. When fully implemented, this agreement would lead to third country illegal immigrants apprehended in the EU being returned to Turkey if it can be demonstrated that it is Turkish territory that they crossed to reach the EU. I say “at great risk” precisely because the numbers involved might be quite considerable and therefore equally the costs incurred by Turkey. However, we have accepted that risk because we recognize that with the EU we face a serious problem that we need to confront together.

All other countries in our region have obtained an assurance of visa-free access to the EU at the time they concluded their Readmission Agreements. Even though the negotiation on our Readmission Agreement was concluded with the Commission almost 18 months ago, such an assurance has not been given and there is no sign that it will be given any time soon.

Clearly, the presence on EU territory of large numbers of Turkish citizens or people of Turkish origin leads politicians in some EU countries to fear that visa-free access for Turkish citizens would provoke a fresh inflow from Turkey. It is true that in the early 1960s and 1970s several million Turkish nationals came to Western Europe as so-called “guest workers”. However, it is often forgotten that they came at the invitation of the host governments that were seeking qualified labour to man the economic reconstruction that characterized that period. Additionally, Turkey was at that time a poor and underdeveloped country with surplus manpower. Today it is a dynamic, prosperous economy with an impressive growth rate that makes many politicians in Europe envious. Neither in Western Europe, nor in Turkey are the situations comparable to what they were in the 1960s and 1970s, or indeed the 1980s when visa requirements were introduced following the military coup that occurred in Turkey on 12 September 1980. In fact, there is a net outflow of Turkish nationals from Germany –to take one example- that amounted to 50.000 people last year. There is therefore no reason to believe that mere visa-free access which in any case is not the same thing as freedom of circulation of labour would lead to a fresh wave of emigration from Turkey.

Moreover, it is understood that visa-free access would not be obtained immediately from one day to the next but introduced gradually over a period of several years. During that period, the EU would keep the whole process under review and visa-free access would only be reached once all the conditions have been met. I believe that this is a point that is often overlooked.

Parallelism between the Readmission Agreement and visa liberalisation processes has been maintained in the case of every other country that has gone done this road. We want to do the same. This means that the Council of the European Union empowers the Commission to start negotiating a roadmap for visa liberalisation before the readmission Agreement is signed. Once that mandate has been given, things can start moving quite rapidly.

Unfortunately, that is where we are stuck. The Commission has been making every effort within its means to get things to move but there are many aspects of this vexed question that are directly within the competence of the member states. It has to be recognized that the deplorable state of the European economy, rising unemployment, the increasing strength of extremist movements etc. are not conducive to a rational debate on these issues. Nevertheless, we hope that reason will prevail and that the right decisions will be taken in Brussels and the member state capitals so that dialogue can start with a view to eventual visa liberalisation. If that happens, it will give a tremendous boost to our relationship with the EU and vastly improve the negative image from which the Union suffers in Turkey.