The history of Turkey’s half a century accession process to the European Union
is a compilation of unpredictable turning points.
At certain times what would look like a small nuisance would turn out to be impassable obstacle and the process would collapse, while other times what would look like an unsurmountable deadlock would see a miraculous breakthrough.
Progress was possible only thanks to, on the one hand the political will of the Turkish government to genuinely fulfil requirements and on the other hand the political will on the EU bloc to not create additional roadblocks.
So the key here is political will; read that as political interest.
Even for the ultra-optimists, the possibility of visa-free travel to Europe
for Turks sounded and still sounds very unrealistic and too euphoric.
But who would have imagined only a year ago that the “mighty,” straight-forward Angela Merkel, the chancellor of Germany who has always been on the record saying she does not favor Turkey’s EU membership, would be the very person to revive the accession process.
When the circumstances changed, so did Merkel. Did she really change her view about Turkey’s membership? Possibly not. But she realized that a) Germany needs to cooperate with Turkey in order to manage the refugee crisis (which might cost her political career in the upcoming local and national elections), b) Turkey needs to be engaged; securing Turkey’s cooperation cannot be realized by simply providing financial assistance, but additional incentives about the accession process need to be handed as well, and c) Additional incentives will not mean immediate membership anyway.
Visa-free travel is one of the biggest incentives that could be offered to Turkey. The government needs to fulfil 72 criteria. Is it mission impossible? No, if the government has the political will. By now the Europeans are familiar with the fact that once the button is pushed in Turkey, the wheels start turning with incredible speed. Yet some of the criteria cannot be fulfilled by June, not even by this autumn as was initially scheduled, because fulfilling all the criteria means turning Turkey into an asylum-accepting country within EU standards and the mental and physical change for that requires more than couple of months, even if the government did its utmost.
So if the newly designed EU-Turkey deal is accepted, we will end up with a situation where not all the criteria are fulfilled. This is where the political will of the EU comes into play. European leaders have accepted new members in the past even though they had not fully fulfilled membership criteria. Indeed today we see how far some new members are away from sharing the EU’s fundamental values.
The only critical criteria Turkey will have to fulfil is stopping illegal crossings. If Turkey were to convince its EU counterparts that it has genuinely spent efforts to curb illegal crossings and gotten tangible results, then the EU will have to deliver.
Can it deliver on visa-free travel? The answer depends on whether there is fear of a huge flow from Turkey. European diplomats based in Ankara
and Istanbul that I have been talking to did not sound alarmed by such a possibility. “The real concern is about the Kurds. There is fear in Europe
that Kurds might flee due to the situation in the southeast,” I was told.
Perhaps it is not a coincidence that some operations conducted in Turkey’s southeast have been terminated recently. Convincing the European public that things are going back to normal in the southeast might not be easy. At any rate the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party
(PKK) will also do anything in its power to prove otherwise.
Then again, if Turkey takes its Aegean coast under total control, the domestic situation in the southeast will be less of a concern for the EU.
So far I have talked of the EU as if it is a monolithic body. It is not, and there is tremendous disagreement over the deal with Turkey. It will be up to Merkel to convince the others, otherwise it will obviously be impossible for Turkey to fully fulfil the 72 criteria and any country could use its right to veto visa-free travel. But then they will have to answer Merkel’s question: “Which one is preferable, visa-free travel for Turks or the resumption of illegal crossings?”
Turkey will be shouldering a tremendous burden. But what it can do quickly, it can also undo just as quickly.