Viagra for the accession process
For all the exaggerated and misplaced accusations of the EU's discriminatory policies vis-à-vis Turkey, some are well-founded. One example is the EU's decision to deny Turkish citizens a clear road forward towards visa free travel to Europe. This is also problematic in light of previous commitments made to Turkey under the Association Agreement.
Of all the candidate and potential candidate countries, Turkey remains the only one today without an official EU roadmap towards visa free travel. (See ESI's comprehensive site on visa free travel at www.whitelistproject.eu.) Such a roadmap sets out some 50 conditions in the fields of document security, border control and the fight against illegal migration, organised crime and corruption, which a country needs to meet to qualify for visa-free travel) Although their countries have not even begun accession negotiations, Serbs, Macedonians and Montenegrins have been travelling to the EU without a visa since late 2009. Bosnia-Herzegovina and Albania will follow before the end of the year, having completed the required ambitious agenda of internal security reforms outlined in the Commission's "visa roadmap". Turkey, five years into its accession talks, has yet to be offered the same. Making progress in this field could go a long way to restore some of the confidence lost in recent years.
Western Balkan citizens celebrating the fall of the Schengen Wall
Until recently there was a good reason – the absence of an EU-Turkey readmission agreement – for withholding a visa roadmap from Turkey. It is only now that protracted negotiations, launched in 2003, have been concluded. (A text is now almost finalised. It still needs to be approved by the EU member states and then initialled, signed and ratified before it can enter into force.) Such an agreement was a precondition for the Western Balkan countries to receive a visa roadmap. It is now a precondition for the EU's Eastern Partner countries to receive a visa liberalisation process.
Under the readmission agreement, Turkey will be obliged to take back Turkish nationals found to be residing illegally in an EU state, as well as irregular third-country nationals and stateless persons found to have entered the EU via Turkey. For Turkey – a major transit country for illegal migrants from Asia, Africa and Arab countries – agreeing to such an agreement is no small step. Turkey has had had to improve border management, set up reception centres for returned third-country and stateless citizens, and negotiate bilateral readmission agreements with the countries of origin (it is currently in talks with Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Belarus, Bosnia, Macedonia, Georgia, Lebanon, Libya, Moldova, Russia, Uzbekistan).
Illegal crossing of the border between Turkey and Greece. Photo: Mathias Depardon/UNHCR
For the Western Balkans, the readmission agreements were a stepping stone. Once they were signed, the EU launched a visa liberalisation process with the five Western Balkans countries, opening visa dialogues and handing out the visa roadmaps a few months later.
What follows from this is clear. At a time when Turkish citizens are desperate to see new signs of commitment and goodwill from Europe, the EU must offer Turkey a roadmap for lifting visa restrictions as soon as the readmission agreement is signed. Turkish politicians could then work on meeting precise conditions and tackling – once and for all – all the factors that continue to produce high numbers of Turkish asylum seekers and a slew of judgements against Turkey by the European Court for Human Rights.
A visa roadmap would represent a politically attractive agenda for reform. It would play to the shared interest of both the EU and the candidate state – to improve cooperation in the fight against organised crime and illegal migration. Although very demanding in terms of the reforms they necessitate, the conditions of the roadmap are also relatively precise. In the case of the Balkans the visa roadmap process has proven to be EU conditionality at its best: strict but fair. Over the past few years, the roadmaps offered to the Balkan countries have become a very important part of the accession process, allowing the aspiring EU members to make tangible progress in a specific field that matters a lot to citizens. Most importantly, the roadmaps have managed to deliver what they promised and – thanks to the increased cultural exchange triggered by visa-free travel – to sustain the pro-European dynamic in the region.