PM Erdoğan racing President Gül to the EU

PM Erdoğan racing President Gül to the EU

“I have just returned from Turkey. My first priority is to attract Turkish tourists to our town,” the mayor of Bansko, Bulgaria’s popular ski center, told us. We were a small group of journalists in Bansko on the invitation of the Ski Club of International Journalists’ Bulgarian chapter.

The ski center is much bigger than any ski center in Turkey. Accommodation, wining and dining prices are very reasonable when compared with the inflated prices in Turkey. “There is great potential,” I told the mayor. “But my colleague paid 85 euros for a 4-day visa. With that type of visa regime, don’t raise your expectations.”

“I asked the consul general in Istanbul about the visa, and he told me it was standard procedure. Well, it is obvious that we are not getting any richer by requiring visas from Turks,” he said.

Just as I was flying back to Turkey, I saw a friend’s tweet: “I recommended going to Croatia so many times! See, Croatia is also starting to ask Turks for visas.”

Ironically, the Croatian government’s decision to annul the visa-free travel agreement was announced right when the Turkish ambassador to Zagreb was speaking at a panel about how to increase foreign investment in Croatia. When he was asked by Croatian journalists how this decision would affect Turkey, his answer was: “It will be Croatia rather [than Turkey] that will be affected by that decision.” His reaction is only natural: Turkey ranked fourth in foreign investment last year as the number of Turkish tourists, especially to Dubrovnik, has continued to rise.

As Croatia is joining the EU, it will also be joining the list of countries that are increasingly becoming uneasy about requiring visas from Turkey, as is the case with Greece. While Europe is struggling with the financial crisis, some EU member countries are looking to one of the fastest-growing countries in the world, which happens to be next door. Is Brussels aware of it? If you look at the statements of the EU commissioner for industry, Antonio Tajani, I wouldn’t say so. He has been lobbying for more flexible visas to lure Russian, Chinese and Indian tourists. Turkey is not on his list.

Of course talks between the EU and Turkey on visa liberalization are on the agenda. The roadmap prepared by the European Commission, however, carries conditions that have not encouraged Ankara to start the talks. The big EU capitals that are criticizing other members for their failing economies should not be the ones to block their economic interaction with nonmembers. Those member countries that are unhappy with the travel restrictions against Turkey should join hands and cooperate to speed up these talks. But they should also do their utmost to facilitate visa procedures as much as possible.

The Turkey skeptics might rush to recall the Turkish prime minister’s statement that Turkey would say goodbye to the EU if it got into the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. If he is serious as claimed by some Turkish commentators, why would he be willing to rush to reap the benefits of a revival in EU relations that is expected to take place with the departure of former French President Nicolas Sarkozy as well as the end of the Greek Cypriot presidency? Why would he enter into a secret competition with President Abdullah Gül to be the first to visit the EU after a long interval? We will watch that race to unfold in the coming few weeks!