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Turkey's visa policy: Has Turkey given up its demand of free movement in the EU?

HDN | 2/15/2010 12:00:00 AM | Nilgün Arısan Eralp

Turkey has been applying a liberal and flexible visa policy toward its neighboring countries in the Caucasus and Middle East for quite some time.

Turkey has been applying a liberal and flexible visa policy toward its neighboring countries in the Caucasus and Middle East for quite some time.

As of 2009, visa policies for the following countries were liberalized and visa requirements were abolished mutually: Syria (as of Sept. 16, 2009); Albania (as of Nov. 20, 2009); Libya (as of Nov. 24, 2009); Jordan (as of Dec. 2, 2009); Tajikistan (as of Dec. 13, 2009); Azerbaijan (as of Dec. 25, 2009); Lebanon (as of Jan. 11, 2010); Saudi Arabia – unilateral (as of Jan. 10, 2010).

In addition to these, negotiations have been initiated to abolish visa requirements mutually with Russia, which has already been benefiting from Turkey’s liberal and flexible visa policy. It is obvious Turkey’s recent visa policy would generate multiple benefits for the country as well as for countries in its region.

It can, for instance, bring Turkey closer to these countries in cultural, political and economic terms. This policy could also serve to improve economic and commercial cooperation, for which arduous efforts are being made currently, and might increase Turkey’s tourism revenue.

Furthermore, this policy could also contribute to Turkey’s “problem-solving” role in the region. Visa-free travel for residents of the aforementioned countries could also strengthen Turkey’s position as a role model. With its relatively developed free-market economy, equipped with the necessary legal and institutional structure and a functioning democratic system, Turkey can be a source of inspiration for these countries, which have been suffering from various instabilities.

Nonetheless, it should also be noted that Turkey is still carrying on accession negotiations with the European Union – albeit not with a very clear membership perspective – and that the EU has been applying strict visa regimes to all the abovementioned countries.

In this context, an assessment seems necessary to find the impact of this liberal visa policy toward neighboring countries on Turkey’s visa policy vis-à-vis the EU before the implementation of such a policy, through which potential losses must be counterweighed against the potential gains stated above. However, there is no evidence of such an assessment and or strategy based on it.

Within the framework of the EU acquis, the free movement of people as well as the visa regime is regulated by a the Schengen system, named after the Schengen Agreement signed in 1985 by Germany, France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg. These signatory states lifted their border controls toward each other and introduced a common visa policy for third countries. These states also strengthened the cooperation between their police organizations and judicial authorities.

Currently, all EU countries except the United Kingdom and Ireland are members of the “Schengen Zone,” which also include three non-EU countries: Switzerland, Iceland and Norway.

Although Turkey has said it would completely adopt and implement the Schengen acquis upon full membership, due to the uncertainties regarding accession, it has also committed itself to make preparations to join the Schengen zone prior to full membership. In this context, the country has been envisioning various measures to harmonize its asylum, illegal migration and visa policies with the EU in all its national programs since 2001.

In the meantime, “abolishing visa practices” remains one of the main agenda items in Turkey’s relations with the EU. Particularly following the various decisions in this regard by the European Court of Justice and the initiation of visa-free travel for citizens of Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia as of November 2009, Turkey has demanded with a more persistent tone to enjoy such an opportunity.

Although a decision on this issue will be addressed in the Turkey-EU Association Council in accordance with the Association Agreement(s) and the relevant decisions of the ECJ, in order to abolish visa practices the EU demands that Turkey – like Serbia, Macedonia and Montenegro – ratify the readmission agreement concerning refugees, for which negotiations between Turkey and the European Commission are underway. It must also complete the action plan regarding integrated border management and adopt the biometric passport format.

Turkey is concentrating efforts on an impact assessment study for the implementation of a “readmission agreement” as well as on other relevant issues. In this process, Turkey’s decision to lift visa requirements for the abovementioned countries would most probably be used by the EU as an additional excuse for not abolishing visa requirements for Turkish citizens in the short term and would be a significant impediment for Turkey’s inclusion in the Schengen system in the medium term.

In a period where accession negotiations continue with the objective of full membership and efforts are made to ensure the EU lifts visa requirements for Turkey, an assessment measuring the impact of abolishing visa requirements for neighboring countries on the EU’s visa policy toward Turkey and on Turkey’s adhesion to the Schengen system would be very beneficial. Comparison of the results of such an assessment with another to be conducted to determine the potential benefits that would accrue for Turkey by abolishing the visa requirements for countries in its region would definitely secure the efficient implementation and sustainability of the recent visa policies.

Otherwise, the sincerity of Turkey’s EU membership objective could also be questioned.

 * Nilgün Arısan Eralp is the director of the European Union Institute at the Ankara-based think tank TEPAV.

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