Turkey: Will the EU step up to resolve the Schengen visa crisis?
The latest crisis in Turkey-EU relations has erupted over the increasingly frequent rejection of Turkish citizens’ Schengen visa applications in the past year by EU countries.
The visa denial has forced many Turks to postpone or cancel travel plans, business trips and Erasmus study abroad.
Although the EU insists that it does not subject Turks to special treatment, the multitude of required documents and extensive delays have led Turkish citizens to conclude that they are being subjected to “hidden sanctions” or a type of collective punishment rather than standard protocol to curb illegal immigration.
This practice, from Ankara’s perspective, reflects the European Union’s failure to appreciate Turkey’s significance as a regional power and a partner.
The current crisis affects many social groups, including artists and academics, and threatens to fuel Euroscepticism in Turkey. Under the March 2016 agreement, the EU was supposed to waive the visa requirement for Turkish citizens.
Instead, Turks have been experiencing additional problems with their visa applications – possibly a symptom of a deeper problem in Turkey-EU relations. At the same time, such treatment of Turkish nationals amounts to a potential downgrading of relations.
The severity of the visa crisis led to it becoming a topic of public debate ahead of the presidential elections. Following the re-election of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, there has been much speculation about what impact it will have on Turkey-EU relations during his new five-year term.
Having described the rejection and delayed processing of visa applications before the May elections as “political blackmail“, the Turkish leader delivered a two-pronged message after his victory.
Erdogan told reporters on his 13 June flight back from the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus and Azerbaijan that “we will take stock of that issue in a general sense [because] we, too, should review it”, to criticise the EU for keeping Turkey in the waiting room for five decades.
His remarks suggested that the Turkish government intends to play a more active role vis-a-vis visa liberalisation, updating the customs union, and refugees in an attempt to revive its relations with the EU in multiple directions. If the existing obstacles cannot be overcome, however, Ankara will presumably engage in more vocal criticism.
Erdogan delivered his second message to Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission’s president, during a congratulatory phone call on 17 June. Stressing that cooperation between Turkey and the EU was the only way to successfully tackle regional problems, the Turkish leader called for his country’s fair treatment and requested support for Turkish membership.
Judging by those two statements, Turkey remains committed to EU membership as a strategic goal yet is frustrated by excessive delays in the accession process.
In power since 2002, Erdogan remembers perfectly well how EU leaders made promises that they proceeded to break. Still, Turkey’s intention to address the relevant issues will likely compel the EU to take more concrete steps.
A new era?
While Turkey’s EU accession process has become an overly long, tiresome story, some may still wonder if a new relationship is possible in the new era.
Turkish membership talks reached an impasse in 2006 with the EU lacking the resolve to revive the process. From Ankara’s perspective, the problem stemmed from the EU’s admission of the Greek Cypriots despite their opposition to the Annan Plan in 2004.
At the same time, the EU broke its promise to make improvements in relation to the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. Another major problem appears to be the EU’s siding with Greece and the Greek Cypriots in the dispute over the Aegean Sea and the Eastern Mediterranean.
Meanwhile, Brussels criticised Ankara’s record on human rights and democracy. It is also important to keep in mind that the EU capital lacks a leadership that can pursue strategic goals – including Turkish accession.
On the other hand, Turkish diplomacy in recent areas, including the grain corridor and the Ukraine war, captured the attention of EU governments.
The active role that the country played in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Karabakh, too, bears strategic importance to Turkey-EU relations in ways that do not relate to membership.
Specifically, European security, the stability of the Caucasus and the Balkans, energy supply, potential mutual interests in Africa, and illegal migration emerged as key challenges that called for cooperation between the EU and Turkey in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Over the next five years, Erdogan’s leader-to-leader diplomacy with Russian President Vladimir Putin will be relevant to the future of the ongoing crisis between the West and Russia.
In this sense, Turkey and the EU need a new approach that extends beyond the current visa crisis and promotes cooperation in the face of common challenges.
It is important to note that the Turkish president has already expressed his interest in that possibility. However, Erdogan described his foreign policy vision during his campaign as “the continued construction of the Turkey axis” and will not allow EU leaders to keep him waiting.
Having adopted a policy of “balance” by remaining part of the western alliance without joining sanctions against Russia, the Turkish president signals that he intends to remain committed to Turkey’s pursuit of “strategic autonomy” in recent years. Furthermore, he insists on Sweden addressing Turkish security concerns about combating terrorism, a common threat, before signing off on that country’s Nato membership.
The Turkish public rejects the notion of promoting closer cooperation between Turkey and the EU in exchange for Ankara meeting certain preconditions and dealing with impositions.
More importantly, the country cares deeply about defending its national interests and making an active contribution to international peace and stability amid global uncertainty fuelled by multipolarism and great power competition.
Erdogan’s argument that Turkey remains “as close to the West as to the East” must not be reduced to a policy of “balancing”. Rather, that comment attests to Ankara’s rejection of polarising bloc politics, trade wars and new cold wars.
In this new era, it would be wise and strategically significant to revive the future of Turkey-EU relations within the context of shared interests. Opening new chapters in membership talks might seem like an ambitious goal for the short term.
However, high-level talks on the accession process, ensuring visa liberalisation, updating the customs union and cooperation on counterterror measures would make a positive impact on the political situation between Turkey and Europe.
Excluding Turkey, whose role within Nato (such as its most recent deployment of troops to Kosovo) contributes to European security, does not serve the EU’s interests.
To ensure its safety over the next decades, Europe, which currently opposes Russia, must strengthen its cooperation with Ankara at all levels and in multiple ways. One would expect EU leaders to act strategically for the sake of the continent’s future.
It would be possible for the EU to rediscover Turkey’s importance by focusing on European security as a whole.
In this regard, the ongoing visa crisis could be seen as an opportunity to address the lack of progress in Turkey-EU relations and take positive steps that might help break the ice – even if such measures do not completely unfreeze the relationship.
Against the backdrop of global uncertainty, potential areas of cooperation would include the Caucasus, Central Asia, Africa, the Eastern Mediterranean, migration and energy.
As French President Emmanuel Macron stated in his congratulatory message to the Turkish president: “France and Turkey have huge problems to solve together. The return of peace to Europe, the future of our Euro-Atlantic alliance, the Mediterranean.”
Indeed, transforming the intention to work together into a firm commitment would be to seize a crucial opportunity. Failure to take that step would go down in history as yet another example of the EU’s strategic blindness.