The EU’s point of no return with Turkey
The European Union officially announced on April 20 that if Turkey fulfilled all necessary measures in the next two weeks, the commission would start procedures on May 4 to put Turkey on the EU’s visa-free travel list. “I am pleased to say that progress has been made,” EU migration commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos said during a press conference.
Hours before, on his way back to Ankara from Strasbourg, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu was assuring the reporters on board his plane that no problem was left: “My friends, we are going to get visa immunity in June.”
Out of 72 topics that the EU asked for from Turkey only six months ago, more than 60 have been completed, according to official sources. The remaining ones will either be brought to parliament to be approved as new legislation or signed by Davutoğlu and his ministers to be put in effect as decrees.
“Nobody in the EU expected that we could work so efficiently and fulfil the criteria,” a ranking official told Hürriyet Daily News. “I do not expect any bad surprises. If nothing really big happens in the coming days, I believe we are going to get it.”
Visa-free travel for Turkish citizens is a part of a deal between Turkey and the EU initiated during a visit of German Chancellor Angela Merkel to Istanbul on Oct. 18, 2015. She met with Davutoğlu and President Tayyip Erdoğan for an extensive cooperation in order to stop illegal migration via Turkey into the EU, as triggered by the Syrian civil war and mostly using the Aegean Sea route to embark to Greek islands.
Ankara had some needs, too, namely sharing the burden of migrants to be hosted by Turkey, reactivation of the membership scheme and visa-free travel for Turkish citizens. Davutoğlu had come up with a project, linking the readmission of the migrants with the fulfilment of the European promises which were agreed in Brussels on March 18. Also in that agreement, it was said that if Turkey fulfilled the criteria, the visa-free travel procedure would be started as of June.
But what actually makes Davutoğlu speak with such confidence is not only the EU leaders’ amazement over the performance of the Turkish government in fulfilling the criteria in such a short period of time. There are two more factors. One is Turkey making it crystal clear that if Brussels fails to keep its promises, Ankara would tear up the deal. It was hard for EU officials to forget Erdoğan’s vow to let the migrants make their way into Europe and wave goodbye to them. That is why former Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi described the 3 million migrants in Turkey as an “atomic bomb.”
The second and more important factor is the end result showing that Turkey’s plan really worked. According to an EU report released on April 20, the migrant flow in October 2015, which took Merkel to Turkey, was 6,929 per day on average. As Turkish officials predicted, human smugglers have been forced to stop using this route because of the readmission agreement, which was implemented on April 4, and the daily illegal crossings are now less than 100. “We spotted only 63 the other day,” one Turkish official said. This is the performance which was really “hailed” by the EU report.
Merkel and Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, are expected to be in Turkey on April 23, National Sovereignty Day, to visit migrant camps in the southeastern city of Gaziantep bordering Syria. All political criticism against the Turkish government on the rights and freedoms front seems to not be a problem for the implementation of the visa deal with Turkey.
It would be very difficult for any EU leader from this point on to veto a visa-free travel agreement for Turkish citizens; no leader could answer the electorate’s questions if another wave of migration into Europe began. You can call it something else, perhaps realpolitik, but Ankara would call it protecting its national interests in a cruel world.