EU diplomats expect Turkey to press the issue of visa liberalisation during the upcoming summit in Varna on 26 March. It is still unclear if this is a real priority for Ankara or just negotiating tactics as part of a bigger picture.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan will meet European Council chief Donald Tusk, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov in the Bulgarian Black Sea city of Varna on 26 March.
Borissov has been pushing hard for the EU-Turkey summit, despite the fact that such event did not feature in the Presidency’s calendar.
Although EU-Turkey relations have come under considerable strain, it has become obvious that the bloc has raised no conditions for holding the summit.
Conversely, Turkey has made scrapping visa requirements one of the conditions for its deal with the EU, under which Ankara has largely stopped the uncontrolled flow of migrants from its soil to nearby Greek islands.
Within the context of the refugee crisis, Turkey was bullish to lift the EU visa barrier for its own nationals.
The 18 March 2016 EU-Turkey statement reads that “the fulfilment of the visa liberalisation roadmap will be accelerated vis-à-vis all participating member states with a view to lifting the visa requirements for Turkish citizens at the latest by the end of June 2016, provided that all benchmarks have been met.”
After the 15 July 2016 attempted coup d’état, the visa issue no longer featured prominently in EU-Turkey relations, as Ankara did not want to see alleged Gülenists [supporters of America-based cleric Fetullah Gülen] fleeing the country and escaping from prosecution.
But this time Turkey may return to its demand that the visa barrier be lifted.
On 7 February, presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin was quoted as saying that Turkey had fulfilled all conditions on visa-free travel to Europe, adding that the government hopes Brussels will respond and lend “momentum” to better ties between Ankara and the EU.
“The 72 criteria for visa-free travel have been completed,” Kalin told reporters in Ankara, saying Turkey had informed the EU.
Those requirements are organised in five thematic groups: document security; migration management; public order and security; fundamental rights and readmission of irregular migrants.
Who is a terrorist?
Apart from the bigger issue of fundamental rights, one of the most difficult criteria is the definition of terrorism, the issue being that the establishment in Ankara uses the label of “terrorist” on whoever they see as a political foe.
The two sides also have disagreed which “terrorists” should be extradited and which not.
Turkey considers it is in much better position to obtain visa-free travel compared to the Western Balkan countries, the citizens of most of which (except Kosovo) already travel to the EU Schengen space visa-free.