Visa-free travel, not now, why?

Visa-free travel, not now, why?

It appears Europe has made up its mind. The Turks’ dreams of a visa-free Europe will most likely need to wait for another rendezvous. Turkey’s European Affairs Minister Volkan Bozkır has admitted that he has started losing hope that visa-free travel might be achieved soon.

The problem at hand is difficult. Should the norms and values of the European family come first, or its interests? The custodians of the “Turkish national will” believed that the problems at Europe’s doors were so great that they could kill two, three, or perhaps more birds, with one strike.

Irrespective of the amount of support the Europeans or any other country might provide to Turkey, the country has no choice but to “embrace” Syrian “guests” fleeing tyranny and war at home. Already the number of Syrians in Turkey, registered and unregistered, is thought to far exceed three million – and is increasing. Could Turkey allow or turn a blind eye to human trafficking and the continued catastrophe of people in the waters of the Aegean as they try to escape to Europe? Even if Turkey chose to turn its back on the plight of people battling Aegean waters, such a policy could not be sustainable. So taking back “illegal” migrants and sending an equal number of “legal” migrants to Europe, in return for $6 billion to fund the expenses of refugees, was no small bird.

Using the refugee card to force Europe to invigorate Turkey’s deadlocked EU accession process, and to force the Greeks, Greek Cypriots, French and other skeptics to accommodate themselves to the idea of Turks in Europe, and a speedier accession process, was also no small bird.

However, the biggest bird was visa-free travel to Europe, something that Turks would love to see, generously repaying at the ballot box anyone who achieves it. If Turkey’s absolute ruler Recep Tayyip Erdoğan wanted to become a supreme president, could such a landmark success not woo the electorate?

The path to achieving that great target was difficult. The EU did not just pledge to deliver a list of Turkish expectations; it also put forward its own demands. Most of those demands were discussed or bargained at length by outgoing Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu with his European interlocutors. On the table were 72 demands from Europe to consolidate democratic governance in Turkey. Davutoğlu was eager to secure visa-free travel and knew well that he could do little but agree to Europe’s demands on the refugee issue. So he agreed to the deal, containing 72 conditions that Turkey pledged to undertake in order to qualify for visa-free travel. What relevance did those 72 conditions have with visa-free travel? There was only a limited connection, but it was a good opportunity for Europe to prod Turkey to return to the long-forgotten reform process.

Five conditions on the list were particularly important: 1) A refreshing of legislation on fighting corruption. 2) Enforcing protection of individual data. 3) Engaging in judicial cooperation with all European countries. 4) Increasing cooperation with Europol, the EU’s police organization. 5) Updating the anti-terror law, taking into consideration European standards and limiting the definition of “terrorism” and “terrorist.” Of course, there was also the nasty condition of lifting visa requirements for all EU members, without exemption. As a result of this, Turkey would have to engage in cooperation with the Greek Cypriot administration as the only EU-member government of the entire island of Cyprus, as well as providing visa-free travel to Greek Cypriots. Even though Turks, even after the deal entered into force, would not be able to travel without visas to Cyprus, that was the deal.

The first problems started with the amendment of the anti-terror law. Erdoğan and his AKP are battling the Kurds as well as the Fethullah Gülen Islamist fraternity, and want as wide a definition of terrorism as possible. So the Machiavellian “end justifies the means” mentality failed when Brussels’ demands became too problematic to swallow in Ankara. The other four issues were also problematic, but Europe was ready to put them in a fridge for some time. 

Erdoğan believed that Europe could be blackmailed with refugees at the doorstep, and his men continuously issued threats that if the deal faltered then Europe might be flooded by refugees. Meanwhile, some European leaders were wise enough to realize that while keeping most refugees in Turkey is in Europe’s interest, sticking to values and norms and using this opportunity to prod Turkey to take a few modest steps in consolidating its peculiar democracy.

Erdoğan wanted to play for time. He said he wanted the EU to grant Turks visa-free travel to the passport-free Schengen area by October – not June as was previously spelled out – at the latest. Would putting the issue in the fridge for a few months help Erdoğan? Who knows? Even 24 hours is a long time in politics.