Weakest link of the Turkey-EU visa deal: New passports

Weakest link of the Turkey-EU visa deal: New passports

There are huge differences between the statements of Turkish and EU officials with regard to how many of the 72 benchmarks required for granting visa exemption to Turkish citizens by the end of June have been fulfilled by the government in Ankara.  

Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu told journalists last week on the sidelines of his important Strasbourg visit that his government fulfilled almost all 72 benchmarks, saying “There were 72 criteria, now it is down to a single-digit level.” 

According to Turkish officials, Turkey has met 61 benchmarks as of April 20 and will accomplish all requirements in the coming days so that the European Commission will be able to release a positive report on visa liberalization on May 4. 

However, Marta Cygan, a director in the European Commission’s Migration and Home Affairs unit, told the European Parliament the same day that Turkey has satisfied only 35 of the 72 conditions entirely or almost entirely. “The Turkish authorities have definitely been accelerating the implementation of administrative and legal reforms allowing them to fulfill the requirements,” she told lawmakers, as quoted by Reuters.

It was odd for the director to share outdated information with EU lawmakers and thus create a negative perspective on this highly sensitive issue, as Turkey’s fulfillment of 35 criteria was acknowledged by an EU report in mid-March. What makes her statement important, however, is the fact that it coincided with the Financial Times’ report on the hesitancy of some EU countries in regards to the visa liberalization of Turkish citizens and their efforts to introduce new conditions to the already-sealed deal between the two parties.  

This debate will surely continue until the European Commission releases its advisory report on May 4 and even after it, as the process requires the ratification of the European Parliament. 

One last sentence on this part of the discussion: EU officials should be convinced that disappointing the Turkish people on this visa issue will surely upset the entire apple cart and deal a huge blow to the recently softened ties between Ankara and Brussels. 

Besides all these political discussions, there is another very important aspect of the visa liberalization: the issuance of new passports for Turkish citizens. It should not be forgotten that document security constitutes the core of the visa waiver program and only the Turkish citizens holding passports fully in line with EU regulations will be able to enjoy this right. 

The new international passports should contain biometric data, including photo and fingerprints which means that around 10 million Turkish passport holders must renew their documents before travelling to the Schengen zone after June. That means EU’s decision to grant Turkish citizens visa-free travel in June will have no immediate effect until the new passports are issued and distributed. In due course, this should follow with new identity cards, again in line with EU regulations. 

Turkey has not yet announced a tender for the issuance of new passports, although talks with some companies are underway. Turkish officials believe the new passports will start to be printed in autumn this year, while EU officials envisage that they won’t be ready before the end of this year. 

This means practical implementation of the visa waiver will have to wait a couple months more after the potential approval of the EU, which would give both sides a new area of flexibility in ongoing negotiations over the visa liberalization process.