The EU and Turkey have an opportunity to work on issues that can unite them.

The European Union (EU) and Turkey have been facing serious domestic and external challenges over the past few years. The EU faces the twin threat of right-wing populism and economic inequality. Whereas Turkey has had to contend with the threat of violence from an array of organisations, including the PKK and its offshoots, Daesh (ISIS) and the Fetullah Terrorist Organisation (FETO).

Needless to say, strong collaboration is needed to contain these challenges. Yet it's conspicuous that new tools are also needed to revive the strained relationship between Turkey and the EU. 

There are several tools that might rekindle relations between the two actors, one of them being visa liberalisation between Turkey and the EU. Visa liberalisation, which has nearly been finalised, will surely lead to a better understanding between people and increased cultural exchange.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu is expected to put the issue on the table during his upcoming visit to Brussels. Yet decision makers, and especially those on the EU side, should recognise Turkey’s economic accomplishments and understand their Turkish counterparts when it comes to the issue of terrorism.

Economic Conditions

In granting visa-free travel, the EU looks at the economic strength of the applicant country. For years, EU officials have rejected the need to abolish visa requirements for Turkish citizens. Ostensibly, the argument put forward was that Turkey was economically weak and Turkish citizens considering coming to the EU may abuse the visa regime and not return to Turkey.

Two years ago, in a report published by the German Marshall Fund, it was argued that the EU could no longer substantiate its claims on Turkey’s economic weakness, or support its arguments on irregular migration. 

This is in contrast to the visa arrangements for Balkan countries. The Turkish economy is better off than all the Balkan countries. Turkeys GDP per capita is even higher than some EU member countries, such as Bulgaria and Romania, standing at $10,700. These countries benefit from complete free movement of people within the EU.

A country’s economic indicators should be examined together with the number of asylum applications to EU member countries. 

The volume of asylum applications is demonstrative of the potential for illegal immigration from a certain country seeking to get visa-free access to the EU. 

Despite its significantly smaller population, the number of asylum applications from Albania alone was slightly more than 34,000 people between April 2016 and April 2017. This is nearly three times higher than the number of Turkish asylum seekers at 14,385. This was even as Turkey went through a failed coup attempt. Yet, the former has been enjoying visa-free travel to Europe, while the latter has experienced the politicisation of a non-political process.

Additionally, Turkey has unique ties with the EU and the Customs Union which allows both sides to import goods without imposing taxes on each other. Yet visa restrictions impose a significant cost to mutual trade.

Turkey has consistently raised issues with the technical flaws of the Customs Union agreement. Turkish goods circulate freely into the EU.  Yet the businessmen who own these companies are confronted with bureaucratic barriers and subject to visa restrictions. 

A World Bank report indicates that the EU should lift visa requirements for Turkish citizens or ease visa procedures by issuing long-term multiple entrance visas, by diminishing visa prices and bureaucratic burdens. Despite all these obstacles, Turkey’s trade volume with the EU exceeds $171 billion.

Overcoming Fears by Reaching the Muslim World  

In an era where extremist parties are on the rise in Europe, motivated by anti-Turkish and anti-Muslim sentiments, interaction between Turkish and European citizens could serve as an antidote.

A fear of Muslims paves the way for the rise in extremist parties. Approximately five million people of Turkish origin and Muslim faith have already been in EU countries, successfully integrating into society and contributing to these countries. These people’s multiple identities as Turkish, Muslim and European shouldn’t be regarded as a threat.

Rather, it should be considered a natural solution to assuaging the fear of Turks and Muslims in the EU. Otherwise, as long as politics in the EU is directed by this fear, extremist parties will take the reins of power setting many European countries back decades in some of the progress they have achieved regarding their treatment of minorities.  

The geographic proximity between Turkey and the EU, together with the country’s successful economic position, enables more interaction with the bloc. Political barriers through the visa process for Turkish citizens curb the real potential of socio-cultural dialogue between Turkish and European people. 

The number of Turkish academics who engage in research, either on European studies or with European institutions, is increasing, just like the number of Turkish Erasmus exchange students who serve as bridges between European and Turkish societies. This is in addition to Turkey’s flagship air carrier Turkish Airlines, which operates direct flights to almost 110 destinations in Europe.

Therefore, instead of being confronted with visa restrictions, these interactions that bridge Turkey and the EU should be supported.

Working on security-related matters

For years, Turkey has suffered significantly from terrorism and  has always sought to co-operate on terrorism-related issues, by preventing its financing and through intelligence sharing. 

The EU, however, expects Turkey to narrow down its definition of terrorism. But the terrorist threats that both actors encounter result from different dynamics and thus, several countries in Europe changed their definition of terrorism to effectively tackle the newly-emerging trajectory of security threats.

The two sides therefore find it difficult to agree on the most elementary issues. It should be noted that a terrorist who was extradited by Turkish authorities to Belgium over his connections with Daesh was later released by Belgian authorities. He was later found to be behind the Brussels attack.

Secondly, there is a tendency in certain EU capitals, given their recent experiences, to broaden their security legislation. France, which was one of the main targets of terrorist attacks in Europe over the past few years, adopted a new anti-terror law, despite facing harsh criticism, giving administrative authorities extra powers.

France has only contended with the brutality of Daesh, but Turkey has been the target of several other groups that it has listed as terrorist organisations, including the PKK, Daesh and FETO. The last of which Ankara blames for a failed coup attempt last year, that killed more than 240 people and injured thousands more.

The visa-free regime for Turkish citizens, therefore, is long overdue. Turkey’s economic robustness proves that the fear of a flood of incoming Turkish people through the visa-free regime in the European continent is baseless.

Moreover, Turkey is in a far better position when compared to other visa-exempt countries.

The visa liberalisation process stagnated with the EU’s demand for amendments to Turkey’s anti-terror law as the country faced an unprecedented wave of terrorist attacks.

To speed up the procedure, concerned ministers prepared a new road map and planned some amendments that are expected to be discussed during Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu’s visit to Brussels.

Mutual understanding is needed to strengthen collaboration to tackle the issue of visa liberalisation and emerging security threats.

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