ISTANBUL // More than five years after the start of Turkey's accession talks with the European Union, Ankara's hopes for membership may be fading as negotiations drag on without much progress. But the government is hoping for progress on another front that is just as important to many Turks as EU membership itself: visa-free travel to Europe.
Next month, Turkey and Russia will mutually lift visa requirements for their citizens. Russian authorities informed their counterparts that bureaucratic preparations for the move were complete, the Turkish press reported this week. The agreement will make it easier for Turkish businessmen to travel to Russia and for hundreds of thousands of Russian holidaymakers to spend their vacations on Turkey's southern shores.
Even more important for Turkey would be an easing of travel restrictions with EU countries. In February, EU interior ministers approved a so-called re-admission agreement with Turkey, a key EU condition for easing visa restrictions for Turks travelling to European countries for business or pleasure. But the ministers did not issue a mandate for the EU commission, the bloc's executive arm, to start talks with Ankara about better visa conditions for Turks, calling for a more general "visa dialogue" instead.
That decision was a disappointment for Ankara. Given that talks about the re-admission agreement were concluded successfully, it was "fair to expect talks about the visa issue", a high-ranking Turkish diplomat said. Speaking on condition of anonymity, the diplomat added that Ankara was aware that the question of lifting visa restrictions for Turks was "a very hot political issue" in Europe.
Many European countries are concerned about a possible influx of poor Turkish migrants if visa restrictions were to be lowered or scrapped altogether. At the moment, Turks wishing to travel to EU countries have to undergo a costly and time-consuming procedure that carries no guarantee that a visa will be granted in the end.
Many Turks regard those restrictions as humiliating, unnecessary and bad for business. Beril Dedeoglu, a political scientist at Istanbul's Galatasaray University, said: "It is a very important topic for businessmen, students and others who want to go to Europe a lot." Fears by Europeans that poor Turks would flood their countries if the visa were to be scrapped were unfounded, she said. "This is not rational, people would come back."
Stories about perceived cases of arbitrariness and harassment by European visa officials abound. In January, a group of Turkish businessmen protested after they were denied visas for trips to Germany, where they were to attend a trade fair where Turkey was featured as the special guest country.
Turkish officials have been especially irked by the EU's decision to lift visa restrictions with Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia, countries that have not started accession talks with Brussels. There has been no easing of travel restrictions for Turkey, whose membership negotiations started in 2005. The EU says there are clear conditions for improved travel regulations, including the introduction of biometric passports, which Turkish authorities have been issuing since last summer, and the re-admission agreement.
This agreement offers Turkey some leverage. The treaty says that Turkey has to take back illegal migrants who entered the EU via Turkish territory. If implemented, the agreement could help to stem the flow of tens of thousands of migrants who come to the EU every year without proper papers, as Turkey has become an important transit country for people from Africa, the Middle East and Asia seeking a better life in the West.
Ankara seems ready to push for progress on the visa front by refusing to ratify the re-admission agreement. When the EU ministers declined to give the green light for visa talks with Turkey, Ahmet Davutoglu, the Turkish foreign minister, hinted that the EU could not expect Ankara to implement the re-admission agreement any time soon. "Nobody should expect Turkey to take one-sided steps on this matter," Mr Davutoglu said.
One issue Turkey has to work out is what to do with refugees it would receive back from Europe. The EU has promised financial aid to build refugee centres in Turkey. But Ankara will also have to negotiate re-admission agreements with countries where the migrants came from originally, such as Afghanistan. "Otherwise, those people will stay in Turkey," Professor Dedeoglu said.
The right to travel to other countries freely is an emotional issue in Turkey, as a sustained economic upturn makes international trips possible for more people. Facing parliamentary elections on June 12, the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, has launched a campaign to lift visa restrictions with as many countries as possible. Media are keeping a close count of the expanding list of more than 60 countries that Turks can now visit without a visa. Western European countries are conspicuously absent from the list.
"An easing of visa restrictions would be a bonus" for the government in the upcoming election campaign, said a western diplomat in Ankara, who requested anonymity because he was commenting on a domestic issue for Turkey. With progress in the visa area field under its belt, the government would have something positive to present to the voters in terms of relations with the EU, even though Turkey's membership talks have more or less ground to a halt because of the unresolved conflict on the divided island of Cyprus and because of a general resistance of some EU countries, notably France, against Turkey's application.
European officials are aware of Turkish expectations, but "whether those expectations can be met is another matter", the western diplomat said.