The debate over whether Turkish citizens will be able to travel to the EU without visas is often portrayed as a numbers game: Will Ankara be able to complete a list of 72 mandatory “benchmarks” in time to satisfy the terms of its deal?
But there’s another box Turkey may never be able to tick: support from the European Parliament, whose members are growing increasingly uncomfortable with the idea of giving anything to the government of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as long as questions remain about its commitment to human rights and the rule of law.
MEPs and diplomats say that if Turkey fails to meet all of the required criteria — which include guarantees to protect civil liberties — they will exercise their legislative power to deny visa liberalization. For its part, Turkey has already said that lifting the restrictions before June is a non-negotiable part of its controversial agreement to stem the flow of refugees into the EU.
Unless somebody backs down, that means the EU’s whole deal with Ankara — pushed by Angela Merkel, hashed out in difficult negotiations with the European Commission and other EU leaders, and now vigorously defended by Council President Donald Tusk — could unravel altogether.
A key deadline hits next Wednesday, when the Commission will issue its next report on Turkey’s progress in meeting the criteria. MEPs say they worry the Commission will try to gloss over shortcomings in that progress in order to keep Ankara happy. They promise they will insist on holding everyone to the EU rules.
“Turkey has to fulfill the same requirements for visa liberalization as other countries did,” said Kati Piri, a Socialist MEP and member of the Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee. “Lowering European standards in order to please Ankara is not part of any deal.”
It’s almost a no-win situation for the Commission. According to Alexandra Stiglmayer, senior analyst at the European Stability Initiative think tank, it “can either pretend that everything is fine, propose visa-free travel, and lose credibility; or it can say that Turkey has not met all the benchmarks and not propose visa-free travel for now — but then the deal is off.”
Piri, a Parliament rapporteur on the Commission’s Turkey progress report, went even further, saying that if the Commission gives Turkey a green light despite the concerns, Piri said, “it can count on a critical reception in the European Parliament.”
Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans defended the process in a European Parliament debate Thursday morning, saying the EU would make sure to hold Ankara responsible for meeting the visa requirements.
“The onus is on Turkey. They have to comply with the 72 benchmarks that are in there. They say they can do that,” Timmermans said. “We will not play around with those benchmarks. They are clear, they are legally framed and we will report on them with precision.”
EU officials continue to hail the agreement with Ankara as a success story in the effort to control migration flows. At first blush the numbers from EU border agency Frontex, which show a significant decrease in the number of migrants arriving in Greece, bear this out. And Tusk, after a visit to a refugee camp with Merkel on Saturday, offered an endorsement of Turkey as the “best example in the world of how to treat refugees.”
But the enthusiasm ends there.
“The feeling of lack of trust on the visa [liberalization] and on the camps [for refugees] is widespread, no one believes in it but we cannot say it openly because there is no alternative,” said an EU diplomat.
Talks between the EU and Turkey on lifting visa restrictions began in December 2013, but progress was slow at first. After two years, Turkey had fulfilled just 35 of the EU’s 72 requirements for visa liberalization. But when Turkey became the political center of the migration debate — the funnel point for thousands of refugees trying to make it from the Middle East to Europe — Ankara saw an opportunity to speed things up.
It made visa liberalization one of the key demands in its agreement with the EU to slow the flow of refugees. Along with €6 billion in EU aid to help Turkey cope with the 2.7 million refugees on its soil, visa liberalization was the most concrete demand. A promise to re-open talks on Turkey’s bid to join the EU — which almost everyone considers a long shot — was left more vague. The visa promise had a clear deadline and clear ultimatum from Ankara: without it, the deal is off.
But since it started being implemented, the agreement has come under criticism from NGOs and political leaders, who have raised fears about how refugees returned to Turkey are being treated, and who have blasted Ankara for authoritarian policies on human rights and freedom of the press.
Apparently confident that the deal is in place, Erdoğan has continued to play bad-cop, provoking the EU with often belligerent rhetoric and political moves to show he is unconcerned with criticism. His demand that Germany investigate a comedian for off-color satirical remarks about him has set off a firestorm of debate over how much the EU is willing to sacrifice its principles in the name of keeping migration under some semblance of control.
Meanwhile, Ankara is still behind in the numbers game.
“There are still 12 benchmarks that are not fulfilled at all or which are only partially fulfilled, with no positive developments observed by the Commission,” the European Stability Initiative, a think tank specialized in southeastern Europe and enlargement, said in a report issued in March called “Turkey’s Visa Liberalization Scorecard.”
Last month, a majority of MEPs approved Piri report’s on Turkey, which criticized the country for “backsliding” on democracy and the rule of law, and urged the EU to avoid “outsourcing” the refugee crisis to Turkey.
But Turkish officials downplay these concerns, insisting that Ankara will live up to its commitments.
“We believe that we have met most of the benchmarks and will fulfill almost all of them by next week,” said one senior Turkish official, saying that some of the measures “are impossible because of the timing.”
How MEPs and national governments react to that “almost” will be the key factor.
Many say Turkey will struggle to implement all the European requirements. One of the criteria, for example, requires that a country “ensure the right to liberty and security, the right to a fair trial and freedom of expression, of assembly and association in practice.”
That could be a hard sell for Ankara in the EU right now. Turkey’s government has opened as many as 1,845 legal cases against people accused of insulting Erdoğan since he was elected president in 2014, Turkey’s justice minister said at the beginning of March. In recent days there have been other public-relations problems for Turkey in the EU.
On Monday Turkey demanded that a photograph be removed from an exhibition in Geneva because it links Erdoğan to the death of a teenager in anti-government protests. Over the weekend Ebru Umar, a Dutch journalist of Turkish origin, was arrested while on holiday in Turkey over her column in a Dutch daily criticizing Turkey’s efforts to silence free speech in Europe.
Assurances from Ankara
For now, Turkey and the EU are acting as if both sides are keeping up their end of the deal. The Commission confirmed receiving a letter from Turkish authorities promising to provide protection for non-Syrian refugees returned, which had been a sticking point for humanitarian organizations. Europe is going ahead in opening a new area of talks on Turkey’s long shot EU membership bid.
In March it was agreed that a new chapter on economic integration would open by June, and on Tuesday a Commission spokeswoman confirmed that “we are on track” for it.
But some say the talk has been cheap.
“It has been counterproductive for the Commission and EU leaders to say that they expect Turkey to meet all benchmarks, that the criteria will not be watered down for Turkey,” said Stiglmayer, the analyst. “Turkey will not establish freedom of expression in the next few weeks and meet the human rights benchmark.”
Some diplomats argue that there could be a third way, a classic EU fudge: going ahead with the visa liberalization but announcing that the “Commission may have to give an update in June only on a few points.”
At this point it’s unclear whether anyone would buy that.