Racing against both time and Erdoğan on visa free travel
The European Commission has proposed to lift visa requirements for Turkish citizens, arguing that in view of the fast progress currently on show, Turkey could fulfil all necessary criteria by the end of June.
This was an expected development. Most of the news and analysis focuses on the numbers - how many of the 72 criteria are met and how many remain to be fulfilled. However, there is only one number that has been crucial: The daily number of refugees illegally crossing from Turkey to Europe.
While the evaluation of the 72 criteria is technically important, the single criteria that the Commission looked at - without which it would have refrained from issuing a positive view - was the drop in the number of illegal crossings.
“At the beginning we were asked to reduce daily crossings to at least three-digit numbers. Now it is at two digits. So we have done better than expected,” a Turkish diplomat familiar with the issue told me.
Just to give you an idea of the drop, let me remind you that last September alone, 168,000 illegal crossings were made to Greece from Turkey according to U.N. information.
As long as Turkey remains loyal to its part of the refugee deal, namely preventing illegal crossings and implementing the readmission agreement, visa-free travel for Turks will become a reality.
As I have previously written, work on the 72 criteria started back in 2013. But obviously things got serious and the pace was stepped up after the past March, when the EU and Turkey decided to implement visa-free travel by the end of June.
Technically it is still mission impossible to meet all criteria 100 percent by the end of June. But as long as one criteria remains fulfilled, (keeping illegal crossings at low figures), European capitals will give the green light even if Ankara does not meet all 72 technical criteria.
Despite statements that the benchmarks will not be watered down for Turkey, the entire EU enlargement process that took place after the end of the Cold War saw a watering down of membership criteria. So watering them down for Turkey would not be a first for the EU.
In the meantime, we are seeing a true “Turkish classic” in Turkey–EU relations. Just as we are in a period of improving relations with the EU, steps are taken - let’s say by “dark forces” - to distance the country from European norms.
Granting visa-free travel to the citizens of a country where academics and journalists are sent to jail for expressing their views, where dissent is seen as terrorism, and where lawmakers have boxing matches in parliament while lifting the immunities of colleagues from an ethnic party, might seem like rewarding an administration that is sliding toward authoritarian rule.
The Europeans may be differentiating between President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, whose aspiration for one-man rule is no secret, and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, who seems less enthusiastic about reversing Turkey’s democratic gains. Indeed, Davutoğlu will get the credit for visa-free travel to Europe, which will certainly strengthen his hand against Erdoğan, who could sabotage the deal by forcing through more anti-democratic practices.
Erdoğan could delay the signing of new laws endorsed by parliament if he thinks they erode his authority. Or he may put more moral pressure on the judiciary and the security forces to carry out practices that violate fundamental freedoms.
So Davutoğlu’s race will be against Erdoğan as much as it will be against time.
I have written this article before yesterday night's meeting between Erdoğan and Davutoğlu.
It seems that now it will be officials within the Turkish administration who have been working hard for visa free travel will have to race against Erdoğan.