Turkey/EU: playing hardball on visa liberalisation

Cooperation: Józef Lang

The European Commission has initiated the legislative process which is to culminate in a decision to abolish visas for citizens of Turkey this June. The proposal, submitted on May 4 to the Council of the European Union and the European Parliament, is a further step in the implementation of the EU-Turkey plan to deal with the migration crisis. The EC’s decision is an expression of the EU’s determination to implement the agreement, despite Turkey’s failure to meet all the conditions. Among the five requirements it has not yet met, the most important is the change in Turkey’s law on combating terrorism, which in practice is used to suppress the opposition in Turkey. Now Ankara has announced that it will not comply with this condition, which calls into question both the abolition of visas and the implementation of the joint plan for the migration crisis.


Abolition of visas in exchange for migrants

From the point of view of the authorities in Ankara, speeding up visa liberalisation for Turkish citizens is a key element of the agreement concluded on 18 March with the EU on the migration crisis. Further important points of the agreement are the financial support from the EU to maintain the refugee camps on Turkish territory (€6 billion to 2018) and the thaw in the process of Turkish accession to the EU. Turkish leaders have often stated that, if the process of liberalisation fails, Turkey is under no obligation to implement the provisions of the agreement to resolve the migration crisis, including the obligation to prevent refugees from entering the EU (around 2.7 million refugees and migrants are currently based in Turkey). The question of visas is a matter of prestige on the Turkish domestic scene, and resolving the matter would mean a great political success for the ruling camp.

So far the process of visa liberalisation has been proceeding positively from Ankara’s point of view. After the report on 20 April which positively assessed Turkey’s role in dealing with the migration crisis, and visits to Turkey by (among others) German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the President of the European Council Donald Tusk, the European Commission presented the Council of the European Union and the European Parliament with a positive recommendation concerning the fulfilment by Turkey of 72 technical conditions necessary for the elimination of short-stay visas to the Schengen area. To be finalised, it is necessary to obtain the consent of the EU Council (adoption by a qualified majority) and the European parliament (a simple majority). At the same time, however, five of the conditions set to Turkey have still not been met, and the implementation of two conditions deemed to have been met have been postponed (the EU’s requirement to secure biometric passports will now apparently be introduced in October, and the readmission agreement will come into force on 1 June).

Of the five conditions so far unfulfilled (which, according to the Commission, should be met during the ongoing legislative process in the EU), four of them do not arouse any major controversy, and are likely to be met by Turkey. These relate to the fight against corruption, judicial cooperation with EU countries, operational cooperation with Europol (Turkey has already sent a letter of intent in this case) and adapting regulations for the protection of personal data to European standards. The biggest controversy, however, is the question of adapting Turkish regulations on combating terrorism to EU standards. The Turkish side has rejected the possibility of reviewing its policies in this regard.


The anti-terrorism act: a bone of contention

The Turkish law on the fight against terrorism, which has been in force since 1991 and has been altered only slightly since then, raises serious controversy, and has often been the subject of criticism from human rights organisations. The greatest dispute is caused by its very broad definition of terrorism and terrorist organisations, which in practice allows the authorities to define as terrorist threats not only those organisations and individuals which directly aim to undermine the Turkish constitutional order (by undertaking activities aimed at striking at the secular, social, economic and legal order of the states, and aimed at violating the unity of the state and the nation), but also people who are not members of any such organisation but who ‘speak on behalf’ of the organisation or who justify any actions defined as such. In practice, both current and previous Turkish governments have used these provisions not only to combat the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), designated both by Turkey and the EU as a terrorist organisation, and left-wing groups, but also to victimise journalists and opposition politicians. The law also allows the prosecution of individuals for ‘spreading terrorist propaganda’.


How the act functions in Turkish politics

Given the current political climate in Turkey, it is unlikely that Ankara will meet the EU’s demands regarding Turkey’s anti-terror laws. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan justifies his long-observed course towards strengthening central authority and changing the constitution to a presidential system by the need to combat the enemies of Turkey, which have their roots both abroad and (above all) at home. In connection with this, the existing legislation allows for measures aimed at a progressive consolidation of power in the hands of the ruling camp, and at strengthening the role of the president.

Erdogan needs the currently existing law to combat the terrorists of the PKK, the parliamentary deputies of the legal, pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), his former allies of the moderately Islamist Fethullah Gülen movement, and the opposition media. In all these cases, the opponents of the current government are alleged to have committed activities prosecuted under the anti-terrorist act. In the case of the members of the HDP, these may be statements on autonomy (undermining the unity of the state), and the Gülen movement is considered sensu stricto a terrorist organisation (which allegedly seeks to overthrow the government). The fight with the media is justified in a similar way: the newspapers and television stations associated with Gülen are deemed to have spread ‘terrorist propaganda’, and the editors of the liberal newspaper Cumhuriyet, alongside allegations of revealing state secrets, were also allegedly responsible for trying to overthrow the government when they published materials concerning Turkish intelligence sending arms to the Syrian opposition.


Consequences for Turkish/EU cooperation

The anti-terror legislation has become one of the key tools in the progressive consolidation of power in the hands of President Erdoğan and the strengthening of autocratic rule. The resignation of Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu from the leadership of the ruling AKP, announced on 5 May, and the expected change in the head of government, confirms this trend and heralds a tougher course in domestic politics, as well as in the rhetoric on its relations with the EU. On the domestic level, Davutoğlu was the last significant Turkish politician who could have attempted political emancipation and limited the role of Erdoğan in the state. In relations with the EU, in which Davutoğlu had been the main executor of Turkish policy, his position had nevertheless been developed in conjunction with Erdoğan, and had to accommodate the latter’s uncompromising nature.

Since the beginning of the migration crisis, Ankara has been a position of strength in its talks with Brussels. The statements by Erdoğan, who has categorically rejected the possibility of making any concessions on the politically significant anti-terrorist laws, should be treated as a statement that the hard-line course will be continued. Thus, after Davutoğlu’s resignation, we may expect not so much a political U-turn, as much tougher Turkish rhetoric towards Brussels.

Erdoğan’s failure to budge poses a challenge for the EU. On the one hand, the EC and the European Parliament are maintaining their tough stance on the issue that Turkey has to meet all its commitments – including in relation to the changes in its anti-terror laws. On the other hand, in the EU (and especially in Germany) there is great determination to implement the agreement with Turkey and bring the visa liberalisation process to a positive conclusion, as is clear from the positive assessment of Ankara’s activities so far.

In the coming weeks, then, we should expect intense political manoeuvres within the EU, and also in EU/Turkish relations. If the visa liberalisation process fails, the implementation of the agreement on the migration crisis may collapse. In such a case, we should not expect any changes in Turkish policy or any weakening of Erdoğan’s government. Any blame for a lack of success on the visa question will be laid at the EU’s door, and Erdoğan will present the collapse of the agreement as proof of his uncompromising stance in defence of the Turkish state.