ANKARA: Ankara and Brussels are readying to discuss another milestone for their long-standing relations as European Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson prepares to visit in mid-October to launch high-level talks between the EU and Turkey on migration management, including visa liberalization for Turkish citizens.
Amid fears of a potential inflow of refugees after the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan and the Syrian quagmire, some key member states, including Greece, are unexpectedly lending support to Turkey’s rights to enter Europe visa-free in return for more cooperation on migration.
Speaking to Die Welt on Oct. 4, Greek Migration Minister Notis Mitarachi called on Brussels to stay loyal to its commitments on visa liberalization to Turkey days after the same minister publicly announced that his country would not tolerate a replay of the 2015 migration crisis along its borders.
Similarly, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said last month that Turkey was a key partner in addressing new migration challenges to Europe and needed support.
So far, Ankara has fulfilled 66 of the 72 criteria the union is asking for in exchange for visa liberalization, including requirements regarding fundamental rights, migration management, security and public order, and document safety.
The remaining criteria include revising anti-terror legislation by widening the scope of freedom of expression, signing a cooperation agreement with Europol, cooperating with EU member states on legal issues, implementing an anti-corruption strategy and revising legislation on the protection of personal data in line with EU law, among others.
The agreement signed between Turkey and the EU in 2013 for the readmission of irregular migrants who crossed into the EU — especially to Greek islands — through Turkish soil suggested that after Ankara fulfilled all its responsibilities, Turkish citizens with biometric passports would have been able to travel freely to the Schengen area within a couple of years.
While nearly 861,630 people reached Greek shores in 2015, that number plunged to 36,310 the following year, and the number of missing persons in the Aegean Sea declined from 441 in 2016 to 71 in 2019.
However, the visa-free process stalled due to several political flashpoints that erupted in EU-Turkey relations over the years.
“In 2019, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan issued a circular instructing the relevant ministries to coordinate their efforts with a view to fulfilling all the remaining criteria. However, this could not be accomplished due to other complications in the Turkey-EU relationship and a lack of motivating factors,” Cigdem Nas, an expert on EU-Turkey relations and secretary-general of the Istanbul-based Economic Development Foundation of Turkey, told Arab News.
After a turbulent year in 2020, Turkey and the EU decided to follow a positive agenda to repair their relations and better manage political disagreements.
“This positive agenda involved modernizing the Customs Union, relaunching high-level dialogue on climate, health, security and regional issues, facilitating people-to-people contacts and cooperating on migration. Visa liberalization was, however, not mentioned in this agenda,” Nas said.
According to Nas, talks about visa liberalization gained momentum as the parties cooperated on migration, especially with the flow of refugees from war-torn Syria through the original migration deal in March 2016.
“Greece’s support may be related to the migration issue. Greece has been under much pressure from consecutive waves of migration since the beginning of the Syrian crisis. As it is considered at the border of the EU along the Eastern Mediterranean route, Turkey’s cooperation in regulating migratory flows is essential for Greece,” she said.
“Greek decision-makers may feel that visa liberalization can be a motivating factor for Turkey to engage in more sincere cooperation with Greece and the EU in controlling irregular migration,” Nas added.
Turkey currently hosts about 3.7 million Syrian refugees, the largest refugee population worldwide.
According to Nas, although the Afghan crisis has not yet created any pressure on Greece in terms of migration, it may provoke a new wave of mass migration in the near future as other migrants also arrive from the wider Middle East and Central Asia.
“It is important for Greece to keep the momentum up in its relations with Turkey and support the latter’s EU bid, including visa liberalization. Turkey may also request from Greece further cooperation in order to convince other member states to revitalize Turkey-EU relations not only on the visa issue but also on such critical issues as Customs Union modernization and the Green Deal,” she said.
Greece and Turkey resumed exploratory talks earlier this year to find common ground on some long-standing maritime disputes.
Amanda Paul, a senior policy analyst at the European Policy Centre in Brussels, said the upcoming high-level meeting between Turkey and the EU is to be welcomed.
“Having a conversation on migration management is important. There is a need to deepen cooperation in this area, as there are common challenges for both partners,” she told Arab News. “The meeting comes on the back of the Afghanistan crisis, with the EU keen to avoid new flows of refugees arriving in its territory and continue discussions on the future of the 2016 migration deal, which was extended to 2022.”
In the Western Balkans, the EU has a visa-free regime with Montenegro, Serbia, North Macedonia, Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Moldova, as well as Georgia and Ukraine. Brussels still continues to monitor the fulfillment of the visa liberalization requirements of these countries through committee meetings and regular reports.
Non-EU citizens from these countries can enter the Schengen area with a biometric passport for 90 days, within a period of 180 days, without a visa.