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EU and Turkey pledge to erase visa restrictions

June 29, 2012

The EU and Turkey seem to have initiated a process that could lead to the lifting of visa requirements for Turks visiting Europe, according to a story at EU Observer. According to the story, the European Commission will begin drafting an action plan, and for its part Turkey will sign a readmission pledge, requiring it accept illegal migrants from external states who entered the EU through Turkey. Turkey will also step up efforts to patrol its eastern borders.

The breakthrough on visa talks comes at a convenient moment, as public disillusionment with the EU seems to be running at an all time high Turkey. Partly this disillusionment is rooted in the lack of progress in Turkey’s accession process, which began in 2005 but has barely moved in the past several years. EU officials blame the lack of progress on Turkey’s refusal to recognize Cyprus as well as domestic political issues, while many Turks interpret it simply as a sign that they are unwanted by Europe. According to a survey, support for EU membership among Turks has dropped from 74% six years ago to 47% today.

The visa issue is also undoubtedly an important reason for Turkish resentment towards the EU. Turkey is the only EU candidate country which does not enjoy a visa-free regime with the EU, although citizens from most EU countries can visit Turkey without a visa or purchase one easily at the border. In a New York Times article, many of the Turkish subjects interviewed said that they no longer cared whether Turkey joined the EU, but that they wanted to be able to travel to Europe without visa restrictions.

The timing of the agreement is also convenient in light of the fact that Cyprus is set to take over the EU presidency on July 1, and Turkey has vowed to basically boycott the Greek-led island’s six-month presidency. In the meantime, Turkey’s European affairs minister Egemen Bagis seemed to downplay the importance of the lifting of visa restrictions with a series of somewhat snarky comments implying that Turks no longer wanted to live in Europe: “In the past, when Turks were asked do you want to live in Europe, 80 percent would say Yes. Now, 85 percent say No. Turkish citizens feel there is more hope in Turkey, better job opportunities.” He argued that most Turks these days go to Europe to shop and spend money, not to live. Although one can certainly agree with the general argument that Turkish immigration to Europe will decrease due to the EU’s economic woes and Turkey’s growth, it remains the case that Turkey’s GDP per capita still ranks below most EU countries, excluding Romania and Bulgaria. Thus, migration will likely continue to be an issue, albeit a less salient one.

On the whole, though, a renewed commitment to the visa free regime should be regarded as a positive development by Turks and EU citizens alike. Who knows, it could even potentially reverse the trend of increasingly disillusion with the EU among Turks. Popular attitudes towards the EU were quite unstable among Croatians, and tended to go up or down in accordance with ongoing events. Perhaps this rare bit of good news in EU-Turkish relations will provide a spark for development in Turkey’s accession process, as well. But it will likely have to wait until 2013, when the Cypriot presidency ends.

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