Is the visa agreement with the EU a raw deal?

Is the visa agreement with the EU a raw deal?

Turks have an equivalent for the English saying “once bitten, twice shy.” They say “the brave who burns his mouth with hot milk will start eat yogurt by blowing on it first.”

Confidence in EU has dropped so low that this is what many Turks probably thought on being told by Prime Minister Erdoğan that visa-free travel to Europe will start within 3.5 years. That, at least, is what is supposed to happen after yesterday’s long-delayed signing by Ankara of a “Readmission Agreement” with the EU. 

Once the agreement is ratified by Parliament, Turkey will have to re-admit every illegal immigrant that has entered EU borders from Turkish territory, airspace or maritime boundaries. It will also have to detain and look after illegal immigrants until they can be sent home, or somewhere safe through regular channels. 

In return for Turkey’s signing of this Agreement, the EU has accepted a “road map” for negotiations on the visa obstacle for Turks. Based on the government’s statements, the visa requirements for certain groups of Turks will be eased initially, with visa-free travel for all starting by mid-2017. 

After the agreement was signed, Erdoğan hailed it as a “new start in Turkish-EU ties” and expressed “gratitude” to the EU, something he has rarely done, if at all, for any issue to do with the EU. Erdoğan added this agreement would also enable Turkey to prove that European concerns about a flood of illegal Turkish immigrants are unfounded. 

Given their conditioning on all matters relating to Turkey, many in Europe will continue to doubt this, and therefore be opposed to visa free travel for Turks. Erdoğan is probably right, however, especially when it comes to skilled professionals. These people have an equal if not better chance of getting a job in their own country today, given the economic and political climate in Turkey and the financial crisis in Europe.

Illegal immigration from Turkey is much more likely to involve non-Turks at this stage and the number of desperate people – including women, children and old people – who are drowning in the Aegean as they try to enter Greece shows this. Turkey being a conduit country, given its geographic location, it is non-Turkish illegal immigrants that the EU is also principally concerned about today.

Many Turks have always felt the difficulties they experience in getting EU visas, especially professionals who can hardly be called potential illegal immigrants, are demeaning, and ultimately politically motivated. Whether this is true or not Turks will remain skeptical until they actually see visa-free travel become a reality. 

Given the EU’s unanimity rule there is no guarantee that this will become a reality in 3.5 years or even later. Some EU diplomats in Ankara also say there is nothing conclusive at this stage, since there are issues that still have to be resolved. Many Turks will therefore be wary that the government has signed a raw deal. 

This is what that opposition is bound say when the matter comes to Parliament for ratification. One does not need much imagination to know Erdoğan will be accused of signing a bad agreement for his own political reasons in the lead-up to local, presidential and parliamentary elections. 

Aware of the possibility that the EU may renege on its words, as it has done in the past in other areas, Ankara has put a safety clause into the Readmission Agreement. This indicates that if the EU does not fulfill its part of the deal, Turkey will cancel the agreement and return to the status quo ante. 

It is time, therefore, that will ultimately prove if the agreement signed in Ankara yesterday is indeed “new start” in Turkish-EU ties, or a just another raw deal.