April 22, 2016
The March 18 agreement between Turkey and the EU for the readmission into Turkey of “irregular” Syrian and other migrants so far has been implemented on a limited scale. Since April 4, a few hundred migrants were readmitted into Turkey, and about one hundred Syrian refugees have been placed in a few EU countries.
Nonetheless, especially for the Europeans, the real aim of the deal was not to have an exchange of people. Its objective was instead to curb illegal human trafficking in the Aegean and break the migrant smuggling networks. In this regard, the deal has served its purpose. As opposed to thousands of migrants crossing from Turkey to Greece on a daily basis just a few months ago, following the implementation of the deal, the number has now come down to only dozens.
The question is, what is in it for Turkey?
One important aspect of the refugee swap deal, other than the promise of financial support by the EU, was to grant Turkish citizens the right of visa-free travel to the Schengen area.
At the moment, Turkey is the only EU candidate country which does not benefit from the visa liberalization regime.
As it has been agreed in a deal between the EU and Turkey, once Turkey meets the 72 criteria required for visa liberalization, the gates of Europe will be wide open for Turkish nationals. This should happen by the end of June.
Or maybe not.
In fact, nobody was expecting Turkey to satisfy all 72 criteria by the agreed upon deadline, which is early next month. Still, more than half of the conditions have already been met, and the Turkish government is working hard to fulfil all its commitments.
However, now that Turkey is dedicated to reach full compliance, the Europeans seem to be trying to come up with a plan to prevent Turks pouring into the Schengen zone if and when the visa waivers are granted. For example, some EU officials have pointed out that fulfillment of 72 criteria is not enough. Besides, there must be a consensus among all EU member states about granting visa waivers to Turkish citizens.
Moreover, some of those 72 criteria are related to issues like individual rights, freedom of expression, and the right to a fair trial. It is true that the Turkish government has been checking those off from the list by swiftly implementing new laws and regulations. However, the picture that Turkey presents in terms of rights and freedoms might make it difficult for the EU to accept current conditions just as they are. Indeed, according to the Reporters Without Borders’ 2016 World Press Freedom Index released on April 20, Turkey is ranked 151st in press freedoms among 180 countries.
Seemingly predicting a negative move on the visa issue by the EU, the Turkish government recently released warning messages. It signaled that if EU does not keep its promise in June, Turkey would also stop taking migrants back, and call the whole deal off.
Ahead of us, May 4 is a crucially important date, because The European Commission will be issuing its progress report on Turkey’s path to obtain visa liberalization.
In a sense, the Commission’s report on visa waivers for Turkey will be deciding the fate of the refugee deal between Turkey and the EU, and thus the fate of thousands of migrants.
If the EU did not want Turks to enjoy a new regime of visa freedom, it is a mystery why they made it part of the deal. By the same token, it is hard to understand why they could not foresee that there would be an impasse on account of Turkey’s inability to fulfill of the conditions set by the due date.
And even more baffling then that, since Turkey is an EU candidate country that should be entitled to visa liberalization assuming that certain conditions are met, why put Turkish travelers into the awkward position of having to thank Syrian refugees for their next visa-free trip to Paris.
It should have been up to the EU to grant the visa waivers, and not up to the Syrians.
Cenk Karatas is a Global Policy Institute Analyst, and the director of Education for Integration Foundation in Washington DC. For over 9 years, Karatas worked as a reporter in Istanbul, Turkey for the leading Japanese daily The Asahi Shimbun. He covered Turkish politics and regional affairs, reporting from conflict zones including Syrian and Iraqi borders, as well as Kurdish areas. @KaratasCenk