Why a EU visa liberalisation process for Turkey is in both the EU's and Turkey's interest

"The time when Turkish people feel least European is when they wait in line for a visa"
Turkey's former Minister for EU Affairs Egemen Bagis

A new generation of Turks waiting to be able to freely travel to Europe
A new generation of Turks waiting to be able to freely travel to Europe

Turkey's visa liberalisation roadmap: the scorecard (May 2016)

The refugee crisis and visa liberalisation for Turkey

The EU-Turkey visa liberalisation process

Understanding Europe's borders (A to Z): All the key concepts and technical terms explained. Also available in AlbanianRomanian, and Turkish.

We have translated the most relevant texts from the White List Project for the Western Balkans into Turkish: Batı Balkanlar için Schengen Beyaz Liste Projesi (Mart 2012)

On 16 December 2013, Turkey accepted the EU's roadmap towards a visa-free travel regime with Turkey and signed a readmission agreement with the EU. These two events, which were mutually dependent, were an important step forward. They launched a formal visa liberalisation dialogue between the EU and Turkey.

If things go well, Turkish citizens will be able to visit without a visa as many as 30 EU member states and Schengen countries in a few years' time. The process, which will require close cooperation between Turkey and the EU, also has the potential to restore trust and revive the relationship.

Cecilia Malmstrom, the EU's Home Affairs Commissioner, called 16 December 2013 "a day of historical importance", while Turkey's Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu remarked that visa-free travel will trigger "a psychological revolution": "In Europe, the way they look at Turkey will change, and in Turkey, the way they look at Europe will change." Referring to the conditions that Turkey will have to fulfil, Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who attended the ceremony, promised, "We are coming to take on a burden, not to be a burden."

Indeed, Turkey will be contributing to the EU's internal security. For the visa requirement to be lifted, it has to improve border management, have secure passports, establish an asylum system in line with international standards, respect human rights, effectively fight illegal migration, organised crime and corruption, and establish close cooperation with the EU in all these areas.

Currently, hundreds of thousands of Turks queue every year in front of EU consulates, spending time and money in exchange for a chance to travel to the EU. In 2012, their number was 670,000. Often they receive a single-entry visa valid for only a few days. Sometimes they are denied a visa, which happened in more than 30,000 cases in 2012.

The visa barrier erected around the Schengen zone is a source of intense frustration for Turkish citizens and officials.  It is young people who suffer most. Consulates are instructed by their capitals to be wary of unmarried young people as they might be tempted to stay on in the EU after their visas expire. As a result, young Turks travel little - even in Istanbul only 13 percent of young Turks have been abroad.

Students at Bogazici University Istanbul. Photo: Bogazici University Istanbul
Students at Bogazici University Istanbul. Photo: Bogazici University Istanbul

Turkey and the EU have discussed the visa issue since 2009, triggered by the visa liberalisation process for the Western Balkans. Turkey was piqued that this process had been offered to countries that had not even begun EU accession talks, while Turkey, a negotiating and economically booming EU candidate country, was skipped. However, at the time the EU did not want to consider visa-free travel for Turkey in seriousness. ESI's work therefore concentrated on demonstrating to EU member states that a visa liberalisation process with Turkey would help them resolve the issue of irregular transit migration via Turkey and contribute to improving EU-Turkey relations:

A first breakthrough was achieved in June 2012: at last EU member states invited the European Commission to launch a visa liberalisation dialogue with Turkey. On the same day, the European Commission and Turkey initialled a readmission agreement (see ESI news story). The conclusion of this agreement was the EU's condition for a visa liberalisation process with Turkey. Under the readmission agreement, Turkey will have to take back Turkish nationals found to reside without authorisation in the EU, as well as, after a transitional period of three years, irregular third-country nationals if there is evidence that they reached the EU via Turkey.

Happiness over the breakthrough on 21 June 2012. Stefan Füle, Member of the European Commission; Egemen Bagis, Turkish Minister for EU Affairs, and Nicolai Wammen, Danish Minister for European Affairs. Photo: The Council of the European Union
Happiness over the breakthrough on 21 June 2012. Stefan Füle, Member of the European Commission;
Egemen Bagis, Turkish Minister for EU Affairs, and Nicolai Wammen, Danish Minister for European Affairs.
Photo: The Council of the European Union

In the second half of 2012, the European Commission and EU member states drafted the roadmap towards visa-free travel for Turkey. Once handed over, the visa liberalisation process with Turkey would begin. The roadmap lists all the conditions that Turkey needs to meet to qualify for visa-free travel. These are issues from the fields of document security, border control, asylum policy, migration management including the fight against irregular migration, the fight against various forms of organised crime and against corruption, as well as human rights. The EU made clear that it expected Turkey to sign the readmission agreement when the roadmap would be handed over. (Signing is the step following the initialling of the agreement. The last step in concluding the agreement is ratification by the Turkish parliament and the EU.)

Frontex officer at Greek-Turkish border examining rubber boat abandoned by irregular migrants. Photo: Frontex
Frontex officer at Greek-Turkish border examining rubber boat abandoned by irregular migrants.
Photo: Frontex

However, Turkey hesitated to accept the roadmap. It had concerns about some of the conditions. Above all, it feared that, as a result of the readmission agreement, it would have to take back tens of thousands of irregular Afghans, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and other third-country migrants. Our report "Cutting the Visa Knot" from May 2013 showed that this will not be the case.

As a result of measures implemented by Turkish and Greek authorities, the number of illegal crossings at the common border has been radically reduced since 2012. Concerning irregular migrants that previously came to the EU via Turkey, the readmission agreement obliges EU member states to have evidence that they transited Turkey before they can request their readmission. Irregular migrants usually throw away anything indicating their route in order to prevent deportation. Besides, for humanitarian reasons many member states are reluctant to send back migrants to countries that they only transited on their route. Last but not least, the provision obliging Turkey to accept back irregular third-country nationals will become legally binding only three years after the entry into force of the readmission agreement.

Our report also dealt with Turkey's other concerns and showed a way forward, showing how Turkish diplomacy could cut the Gordian knot of visa free travel in five strokes:

  1. Turkey should remind the EU that the visa dialogue is not part of the accession process and that instead, it is a negotiation between equals. Turkey should state publicly at the outset that it will not accept everything in the EU roadmap.
  2. Turkey should declare that it will sign, ratify and then even implement the readmission agreement in line with its legal obligations. However, it should also make clear that under the terms of the readmission agreement negotiated with the EU it will not be obliged to take back third-country nationals until three years after the agreement enters into force.
  3. Turkey should confirm that it expects to see steady and measurable progress in the mobility of bona fide Turkish visitors to the EU, including a decline in the rejection rate for visa applications and an increase in the share of long-term multiple-entry visas issued.
  4. There are vital areas where Turkey can help build trust inside the EU. One is reducing irregular migration to the EU via Turkey's land and maritime borders. Another is readmission of irregular third-country migrants. Since Turkey is under no legal obligation to do so for three years, it can decide on the numbers to take back from EU member states all by itself.
  5. Turkey should set a realistic deadline for the conclusion of the visa dialogue. By the end of 2015 at the latest, Turkish travellers should enjoy visa-free travel to the EU. If until then the EU fails to vote on visa liberalisation, or if the vote is negative, Turkey should notify the EU that it will void the readmission agreement.

In the end the solution found between the EU and Turkey is based on these very ideas: Turkey prepared an "annotated roadmap" that reflects its concerns, which, as Commissioner Malmstrom declared, the Commission respects and will take account of. Turkey has also announced that it will cancel the readmission agreement if the visa obligation is not lifted after it has met the requirements, estimating that it should not need more than 3 to 3.5 years to obtain visa-free travel.

In September 2013, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the EU-Turkey Association Agreement, we looked at the state of EU-Turkey relations and the role of the visa requirement. The core idea of the 1963 agreement, that increased interaction leads to prosperity and benefits both sides, is as valid now as ever. However, for obvious reasons the visa requirement hampers such interaction. So we concluded, "It's still visa, stupid!" We appealed to Turkey and the EU to get serious about the European idea of free movement, which was central to the vision of 1963, and make it a reality for Turkey's young generation. This generation – 31 million young people below age 24 – will have to carry the Association Agreement forward in the years to come and instil new life and meaning into it.

Myfest 2008 in Berlin-Kreuzberg. Photo: flickr/CDrewing
Myfest 2008 in Berlin-Kreuzberg. Photo: flickr/CDrewing

On 24 September 2013, the European Court of Justice delivered a much-awaited judgment that in its consequence meant that the only realistic way for Turks to obtain visa-free travel was to accept a visa liberalisation process. The issue at stake was visa-free access to EU countries for Turkish citizens based on rights emanating from the Association Agreement. At the centre of this court case was Leyla Demirkan, a 20-year old Turkish woman who had asked the German consulate in Ankara in October 2007 for a visa. Her request was denied. She went to court, arguing that Germany's visa requirement for Turkish citizens was illegal under the Association Agreement. However, the European Court of Justice rejected her claim. This ruling made clear that the abolition of the visa requirement could not be achieved through court rulings, which some Turkish experts had hoped for. The only route left was to launch a visa liberalisation dialogue with the EU, which the Turkish government eventually did.

We are grateful to the German Stiftung Mercator for supporting our work on the visa issue in Turkey

Stiftung Mercator

We are also grateful to our Visa Advisory Board – in particular to its former chairman Giuliano Amato and board members Otto Schily and Charles Clarke – who have actively supported our work in Turkey. Among other things, they have accompanied us to a series of meetings with senior Turkish officials in Ankara in March 2012 and provided valuable guidance during various board meetings.

Visa Advisory Board​​​​​​​