ISTANBUL // Turkey is hoping to secure visa-free travel for its citizens to Europe within the next few years, a development that has the potential to breathe new life into Turkish-EU relations, according to diplomats and analysts.
Welcoming a decision by the European Union, taken on Thursday, to open talks with Turkey about an easing of travel restrictions, Ahmet Davutoglu, Turkey's foreign minister, told the CNNTurk news channel that the EU and Turkey had taken a "very historic step". Egemen Bagis, Turkey's EU minister, said on his Facebook page the EU had "started to understand that we no longer tolerate standing in line" to get a visa for a holiday or business trip to Europe.
The EU agreed to the talks in exchange for Ankara's readiness to accept a treaty obliging Turkey to take back refugees that cross into EU territory through Turkey. As Turkey has become a main transit route for refugees from Asia, the Middle East and Africa seeking a better life in the West, implementation of the so-called readmission treaty would mean that tens of thousands of people a year could be sent back to Turkey from EU countries, especially Turkey's neighbour, Greece.
Although it began talks to become a member of the EU in 2005, Turkey has made slow progress and has encountered strong resistance within the EU to possible membership. As a result, Turkish enthusiasm for the EU has fallen sharply. According to the latest edition of a regular poll by Turkey's official bureau of statistics, support for EU membership in a possible referendum on the issue has dropped from 70 per cent in 2004 to about 45 per cent last year.
Cengiz Aktar, a political scientist and EU specialist at Istanbul's Bahcesehir University, said the visa talks could change the mood. "It is very important news which will certainly change Turkish citizens' view and appreciation of Europe," Prof Aktar said in an interview. Improvements for groups such as students, academics and businessmen could be introduced before a complete lifting of travel restrictions, he said.
For Turks, a visa application for a country of the Schengen group, which includes 22 EU countries as well as Iceland, Norway and Switzerland, can be a complicated, expensive and time-consuming exercise with no guarantee of a positive outcome. "It's constant humiliation," Prof Aktar said. "Sometimes visas are refused totally abusively."
That is why the talks are expected to improve Turkey's ties with Europe, said a high-ranking Turkish official involved in the negotiations with the EU that resulted in the launch of the talks. "This should have a positive effect on [Turkish-EU] relations," the official, who requested anonymity because he was not authorised to comment publicly, said by email.
The official said that talks between the EU and countries such as Turkey normally take up to two to three years to complete, "but with some effort [the process] could be shortened". In contrast, Prof Aktar estimated the process would take four to five years at least.
Bahadir Kaleagasi, the Brussels representative of the Turkish Industry and Business Association (Tusiad), said an agreement on visa improvements before a complete waiver was essential.
"The problem is urgent," Mr Kaleagasi said in an interview from Brussels. "Every day, Turks are being insulted" by strict visa requirements. "Everybody's biggest problem is the visa issue."
Cecilia Malmstrom, the EU commissioner for internal affairs, is expected to visit Turkey in the coming days for talks about the official start of the visa talks.
In the negotiations, both the EU and Turkey appear eager to secure concessions from the other side.
Officials said the EU will present Turkey with an action plan for the refugee issue with tasks such as the introduction of improved security measures on Turkey's borders with the EU. On the other hand, Ankara says it will sign and implement the readmission agreement only if there is progress on the visa front.
Announcing the deal to start talks, the Turkish foreign ministry said in a statement the signing of the agreement would happen "in parallel to the official start of negotiations about visa exemption".