by Gerald Knaus and Alexandra Stiglmayer
Sometimes one true story is the best way to explain a complicated problem: here is the story of Schengen visa, MMB , MB and the need for change.
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Last December, the EU and Turkey finally launched a visa liberalisation process. If everything goes as planned, Turkish citizens will be able to freely travel to EU and Schengen countries in three years.
The road towards this launch has been bumpy. Now is the time for confidence-building to make sure that the process accomplishes its stated goal, as ESI suggested in its paper “Trust and travel. Easing the visa burden for Turks in five steps last February.
Why this is so important is illustrated by the following true story.
MMB is a respected professor of International Relations and European Integration (she is a Jean Monnet Chair) at Sabanci University in Istanbul. We recently met at a conference in Berlin. Her husband is a professor of Economics and the former dean of the faculty at which MMB teaches.
Recently MMB was invited to speak at a NATO seminar in Italy on 15-17 May. She needed a new visa. So, on 29 April, she went to the intermediary agent, IDATA, which Italy had hired to handle visa applications.
(Nowadays most Schengen country consulates no longer receive visa applications themselves, but use intermediary agents who collect the applications, bring them with the passports to the consulates, later pick up the passports with the visas and hand them back to the applicants. The costs for this service, which saves consulates of lot of work, are charged to the applicants – MMB had to pay 30 Euro for it, in addition to the 60 Euro for the visa itself.)
For her visa application, MMB had filled out the application form and put together the necessary documentation: the invitation letter signed by a NATO general, her flight ticket and hotel booking, excerpts from her bank accounts showing that she has a regular income and sufficient funds for the trip, evidence of her social security payments in Turkey, a current certificate from the civil registry, all the current contracts for her work with the European Commission, evidence that she is an affiliated professor at the University of Stockholm as well as copies of her previous passports that are full of Schengen visas. In her current passport too, she has an expired two-year multiple-entry Schengen visa, a 10-year multiple-entry visa for the UK and a 10-year multiple-entry visa for the US.
To any reasonable person, all this leaves no doubt that MMB is a person that travels a lot for professional reasons, has never abused any of her visas, and has a good job and family in Turkey. There is no risk that she would not come back and prefer to become an illegal migrant in Italy. In fact, MMB was hoping this time to get a 5-year multiple-entry Schengen visa.
Then the IDATA clerk explained to her that the NATO invitation letter is not valid unless the person issuing the invitation – a NATO general – has his signature validated and certified by a notary. MMB was reluctant to ask the NATO general for this. So she had to sign a statement declaring that she “knowingly” submitted “an incomplete application”.
For nine days, she did not receive any information about the status of her application despite regular phone calls to IDATA and the Italian consulate. Then the consulate was very helpful and informed her that she had been given a multiple-entry visa for three years. In the end she received her passport with the visa only four days before her flight.
An isolated case? MMB’s husband MB did not fare any better. He was invited to a seminar at Freie Universität Berlin on 28 April.
Germany uses the same intermediary agent like Italy, IDATA. So MB went to the IDATA office well in advance of the seminar, on 20 March, equipped with the same long pile of documents that MMB had to submit. However, the IDATA clerk was not satisfied. He asked him for civil registry extracts for his entire family, including his parents and his child. MB got these and delivered them to IDATA.
The saga continued. This time, the clerk was not satisfied with the evidence of income and social security payments that MB had submitted. The evidence was an attestation from the university. The clerk wanted to have an attestation from the Turkish social security provider, covering the previous 20 years.
If MB had not promised a colleague in Berlin that he would come, he would have given up, but due to this promise he decided to spend another day on the application, getting the certificate and bringing it to IDATA.
In the end, he received only a 3-month Schengen visa, so he faces the same trouble again in three months. Like MMB, he travels a lot and has previous Schengen visas and a 10-year UK and a 10-year US visa in his passport. But this apparently did not make any impression on IDATA.
If two respected and busy professors who travel extensively and have a good income are treated in this way, how are ordinary citizens treated? What about the promise of EU member states “to promote the regular mobility of bona fide travellers between Turkey and the EU and its Member States” given in December 2012? It cannot get more “bona fide” than in MMB’s and MB’s case, and their experience, in MMB’s words, has been “horrendous”.
When it comes to less well-established Turkish citizens, the situation is worse. In the end, wrote MMB, “it is not me that is the issue here, I always get a visa, but my colleagues, my students they all suffer.” She posted a tweet about her experience.
“My students and younger colleagues immediately responded saying this is a major problem for them. There are many academicians who cannot go to meetings abroad because their visas are either rejected or not prepared in time. This is a key concern for young scholars. Also, consider this: most of these young researchers are earning relatively little money, and each application costs around 300 Turkish lira – about 100 Euro – which is a lot considering their monthly income.”
EU member states ought to have systems in place that make failures such in MMB’s and MB’s cases impossible, and they need to work on making the visa burden for all Turkish citizens as light as possible. In our paper “Trust and travel. Easing the visa burden for Turks in five steps (24 February 2014, we recommended that EU member states commit to five goals to support the visa liberalisation process:
- 1. REJECTION RATES – GOAL LESS THAN 2 PERCENT
Reject as few Turkish visa applications as possible, striving to achieve a rejection rate of 2 percent or less. Some EU member states (Greece, Italy, Hungary) already achieve this.
- 2. LONG TERM VISA – MORE THAN 90 PERCENT
Issue at least 90 percent of the visas as long-term multiple-entry visas valid 3 to 5 years. Member states currently vary on this issue greatly.
- 3. REDUCE COSTS AND EFFORT
Allow proxies to submit visa applications on behalf of Turkish applicants; waive the visa fee of 60 Euros in as many cases as possible and consider removing it altogether; waive individual document requirements wherever possible.
- 4. SOLVE THE ERASMUS PROBLEM
Commit to issuing long-term visas for all Turkish students and researchers in time for the beginning of their studies and projects.
- 5. TRANSPARENCY
Make all improvements visible and advertise them; start to provide information on all aspects of visa policy so that progress can be easily monitored.
It is time that improvements become visible, and not that the visa application procedure becomes more difficult.
In the end MMB still felt grateful to the Italian Consulate in the end. When contacted they were prompt, efficient and helpful. Without their help the application would certainly have taken even longer.