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4/29/16

Turkey: Clearing customs - "but we also come with heavy bagage"

"We were also paid €6 billion to change our flag"
Serhan Turkoglu stands outside one of Istanbul’s many visa-application bureaus, clutching his flight and hotel bookings, travel insurance, proof of employment, social-security registration, recent salary slips and bank statements, and a vehicle licence. Mr Turkoglu, an accountant, needs all of this simply to secure a holiday visa to Spain. For his next European holiday he will have to go through the whole rigmarole again. “It makes you feel like a second-class citizen,” he says.

Turkish diplomacy towards the European Union is focused on obtaining visa-free travel. It is easy to see why. Turkey has been negotiating to accede to the EU for more than a decade; it is the only candidate country whose citizens still need visas to enter the bloc’s Schengen area. Peruvians, Malaysians and Mexicans, by contrast, no longer need visas to travel there.

Europe’s panic in the face of mass migration from the Middle East has provided Turkey with a new opening. In March, in exchange for a pledge to re-admit thousands of migrants deported from Greece, the EU offered Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the country’s president, €6 billion ($6.8 billion) in aid, progress in the moribund membership talks and visa-free travel for his people by June.

To qualify, Turkey must meet 72 benchmarks by late April, from biometric passports to better data-protection. Turkey’s prime minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, claims that his country already meets most of the conditions. But the EU says much more needs to be done. “The criteria will not be watered down,” insists the European Commission’s president, Jean-Claude Juncker.

In fact, it is hard to see how Turkey could meet the political conditions for visa liberaliation. These include bringing its terrorism laws into line with the EU’s, and guaranteeing the rights to assembly and free speech. But for quite some time, Turkey has been restricting political activity and going in the wrong direction on human rights.

The government is prosecuting a group of academics on terrorism charges, after they signed a petition to end a crackdown against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) that has raged in Turkey’s south-east since last year. Two journalists face life in prison for reporting on covert arms shipments to Syria.

Last week a Dutch columnist was detained and barred from leaving the country pending trial; her offence was a profane tweet and an article calling Mr Erdogan a “dictator”.

If the commission agrees that Turkey meets the benchmarks, on May 4th it will recommend that the EU’s 28 governments (as well as the European Parliament), approve visa-free travel for Turkey. In theory this could be done by a qualified-majority vote; in practice, rejection by a large country would torpedo the deal. Far-right anti-Muslim parties are surging in many parts of the continent.

With Marine Le Pen looking stronger in the run-up to France’s presidential election in 2017, notes Marc Pierini, a former EU envoy to Turkey, “France cannot afford to vote yes” to visa-free travel.

Turkish officials warn of a diplomatic train crash if they do not get their way. The first victim would be Europe’s migrant deal. “If the EU does not keep its word, we will cancel the readmission agreement,” the country’s foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, said recently.

Note EU-Digest: If Turkey cancels the agreement because of Europe's democratic election system, respect of human rights, and freedom of expression - one can only say - "Mr Erdogan -  it takes two to Tango, and if you want to shoot yourself in your foot, be our guest".


Read more: Clearing customs | The Economist

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