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On 16 December 2013, the EU and Turkey launched the Visa Liberalization Dialogue (VLD), in parallel with the signing of the EU-Turkey Readmission Agreement. This VLD was based on the Roadmap towards a visa-free regime with Turkey, and set out 72 requirements in 5 thematic blocks which Turkey must meet completely. The 5 blocks focused on: document security; migration management; public order and security; fundamental rights; and the readmission of irregular migrants. Following the fulfilment of these requirements, Turkish citizens will gain visa-free travel across continental Member States for up to 90-days within a 180-day period.

On 18 March 2016, during the EU-Turkey summit, it was decided that the Roadmap towards a visa-free regime would be accelerated, with an ultimate goal of visa-liberalization by the end of June 2016, given that all 72 benchmarks are met. In exchange for this movement towards a visa-free regime, Turkey has agreed to help the EU in closing off paths of illegal migration. However, the path to visa liberalization for Turkey has not been so simple.

There has been much criticism on the forefront concerning this deal. Some politicians believe that this deal is cynical, shady – Turkey has been seeking visa-free travel across continental Europe for years. The opportunity to finally be granted visa-free travel finally became available only within the context of the refugee crisis, in which Europe demonstrated great need for cooperation with Turkey to shut down routes of illegal migration. In exchange for this, Turkey was able to bargain for a visa-liberalization dialogue. However, in engaging in a VLD with Turkey, it has been argued by some that Europe may lose its leverage over Turkey; all Turkey has to do to gain visa-free travel is to tweak a few laws, and meet certain benchmarks at EU standards. This does not, of course, mean that Turkey is in line with EU standards of freedom and democracy. Indeed, questionable treatment of human rights — especially with regards to minority populations – have made headlines on multiple occasions in the recent past. Furthermore, EU leaders have resolved to lower standards of accession to Turkey with regards to the Roadmap towards a visa-free regime. This has, perhaps, been most damaging of all. Indeed, much of the behaviour between the two parties has convincingly shown that this deal for visa-liberalization is a murky deal.

Background:

On 18 March 2016, during the EU-Turkey summit, the following points were agreed upon to end irregular migration from Turkey into Europe:

  1. All new irregular migrants crossing from Turkey to the Greek islands as of 20 March 2016 will be returned to Turkey;
  2. For every Syrian being returned to Turkey from the Greek islands, another Syrian will be resettled to the EU;
  3. Turkey will take any necessary measures to prevent new sea or land routes for irregular migration opening from Turkey to the EU;
  4. Once irregular crossings between Turkey and the EU are ending or have been substantially reduced, a Voluntary Humanitarian Admission Scheme will be activated;
  5. The fulfilment of the visa liberalisation roadmap will be accelerated with a view to lifting the visa requirements for Turkish citizens at the latest by the end of June 2016. Turkey will take all the necessary steps to fulfil the remaining requirements;
  6. The EU will, in close cooperation with Turkey, further speed up the disbursement of the initially allocated €3 billion under the Facility for Refugees in Turkey. Once these resources are about to be used in full, the EU will mobilise additional funding for the Facility up to an additional €3 billion to the end of 2018;
  7. The EU and Turkey welcomed the ongoing work on the upgrading of the Customs Union.
  8. The accession process will be re-energised, with Chapter 33 to be opened during the Dutch Presidency of the Council of the European Union and preparatory work on the opening of other chapters to continue at an accelerated pace;
  9. The EU and Turkey will work to improve humanitarian conditions inside Syria.

In short, the EU agreed to fast-track the visa-liberalization scheme for Turkey in exchange for Turkey’s commitment to resettle migrants caught attempting to enter Europe from Turkey via illegal routes. Seemingly, Europe had granted Turkey a bargaining chip — if Europe failed to guarantee a visa-free regime for Turkish citizens in a timely manner, Turkey had no incentive to uphold its part of the bargain to stop illegal routes of migration into Europe. This could have potentially disastrous outcomes, including the overwhelming of Greece’s infrastructure and ports. However, it is important to note that this March statement on acceleration is not legally binding — rather, it is a political commitment made between two entities. This, of course, goes both ways.

Prior commitments made by the EU towards aiding the refugee crisis in Turkey:

As part of the deal negotiated between the EU and Turkey, the Turkey Refugee Facility was launched as a jointly coordinated management response of humanitarian and development aid by the EU to Turkey. On 29 November 2015, the EU made a commitment to Turkey to provide an initial roll-out of €3 billion to assist with humanitarian and development needs of refugees to be delivered over 2016 and 2017. On 3 February 2016, it was decided that €1 billion of this commitment would be allocated from the EU budget, and the remaining €2 billion would be put together by member states; the largest national contributors to the TRF are Germany, the UK, and France, followed by Italy, and Spain.

On 4 March 2016, while visiting refugee camps in Turkey, Johannes Hahn, Commissioner for European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations, announced €95 million in immediate educational and humanitarian aid; of this, €55 million was directed towards addressing the needs of Syrian school-children living in Turkey, and €40 million was directed to humanitarian aid, via the World Food Programme (WFP). This aid will allow for an additional 110,000 Syrian children to join the current school year, on top of the 200,000 Syrian children who are already receiving education, thanks to EU humanitarian efforts. Furthermore, this aid will allow for the signing of a new €37 million contract with UNICEF, which will be contracted on top of the current €12.5 million deal.

EU’s part of the deal with Turkey:

On 18 May 2016, the European Commission pledged to accelerate implementation of the Facility; €20 million was allocated to increase the capacity of the Turkish Coast Guard, and a further €27 million was allocated to the facilitation of refugee access to education. Around €200 million in commitments was rolled out by the end of May 2016, with Hahn expressing desire to have €1 billion rolled out by the end of July.

On top of this, the EU pledged to put up a further €3 billion on top of the €3 billion already pledged. These additional funds will be put up after the initial €3 billion is used up in full, upon which time they will be used up by the end of 2018. This demonstrates the EU’s commitment to upholding the refugees’ rights to healthcare, education, food, and shelter.

Concerning the status of Turkey’s progress on the Roadmap to a visa-free regime:

On 4 May 2016, the Commission released its third report on Turkey’s progress on the Roadmap to a visa-free regime, in which it recognized that Turkey had not met 5 out of 72 requirements, those being related to data protection and antiterrorism legislation, among other policy fields. The Commission proposed to lift these remaining visa requirements, operating under the understanding that Turkey would fulfill these remaining requirements with the utmost urgency. For instance, concerning Block 1 — document security — the Commission acknowledge that Turkey had made significant progress since the second reading. In particular, only one benchmark of this block was unfulfilled at this time, that concerning biometric passports. Turkey had been working on this benchmark for months at the technical level, but due to technical reasons, it has stated that it will only be able to fully meet this benchmark by October, 2016. Block 3 — concerning public order and security — remains especially unfulfilled on many important matters, such as personal data protection. Block 4 — concerning fundamental rights — is in a similar situation. Given the acceleration of the VLD, it was not possible for Turkey to meet all the benchmarks by the end of June 2016.

However, the European Parliament Conference of Presidents declared that this proposal would only be dealt with after Turkey fulfilled all benchmarks set out under the VLD. In short, there would be no shortcuts to parliamentary procedures; all applicant countries for visa-free travel would be treated equally. Therefore, a referral to committee did not take place at this time, and will not take place until all the benchmarks are fulfilled. Nevertheless, Parliament did acknowledge the swift and earnest progress Turkey had made in meeting several of the requirements set out in the roadmap to the VLD, and encouraged Turkey to implement the remaining benchmarks as soon as possible.

Merkel’s comments:

The skepticism towards the likelihood of the EU implementing a visa-free regime for Turkey by the end of June 2016 was further compounded by remarks made by German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, who did not seem hopeful that Turkey would meet the visa liberalization requirements by the original deadline. In a meeting with Turkish officials on 23 May 2016, Merkel stated: “it is apparent that it will not be possible to realise certain things by 1 July, by which I mean visa liberalization, because the conditions will not be met by that date.” However, she did emphasize that both sides needed to remain in dialogue with one another. Furthermore, when the Turkish president, Erdogan, described alleged terrorist activities of the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party — considered to be a terrorist organization by the Turkish government) Merkel pointed out that, given this, Turkey should have no reason to not amend current terrorism laws; one of the EU’s requirements of Turkey is that it changes its anti-terrorism legislation — this is one of the 5 unfulfilled benchmarks for visa-liberalization. In order to fulfill this benchmark, the EU requires that Turkey revise its legislation and practices on terrorism, and bring them into line with European practices and standards; most notably, the EU requires that Turkey narrow its definition of terrorism, for clarification purposes.

Criticism from outside sources:

On 17 June 2016, Doctors Without Borders (MSF) decided to formally stop taking funds from the EU, due to the “instrumentalisation of humanitarian aid” that Europe was engaging in with Turkey. Its criticism largely stemmed from the fact that it felt the EU was attempting to find a diplomatic way to keep people in need out of Europe. Indeed, it reported that “Europe’s main focus is not on how well people will be protected, but on how efficiently they are kept away.” As well, the “humanitarian aid package [was] provided as [a] reward for border control promises.” Evidently, discomfort over the deal is not just being felt within the EU — the murkiness of this deal is even being recognized by major NGOs.

In conclusion:

Seemingly, there is merit to the skepticism surrounding the validity and viability of the VLD with Turkey. There are several aspects of the deal which, indeed, do seem to be a murky trade off. Turkey, though unprepared and unable to meet the EU’s demands for a visa-free regime in a timely manner, had expected to be granted visa-free travel by the end of June 2016. Though this did not happen, it is nevertheless worrying that this was even an expectation in the first place.

Maria Gladkikh

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