Minister Paet: Time for a visa waiver with Turkey
Relations between the EU and Turkey are currently more complicated than they have ever been before.
The analysts who regard the situation with concern never fail to point out the upcoming 50-year anniversary of the association agreement between Turkey and the EU, or remind us that Turkey has already been a part of the European Union common market for 15 years.
Turkey has been a very important partner to the EU for a very long time now, and its importance will not diminish today as it stands outside the union or in the future as a potential new member.
In the last 10 years the country has become more democratic, dynamic and prosperous, largely thanks to integration with the EU. Turkey has gained significance internationally and regionally in both the economic and political spheres.
This is demonstrated by Turkey's increased self-confidence and a foreign policy based on its own interests, especially in Turkey's neighbourhood – which is also the neighbourhood of the EU. In Turkey, the EU states have an irreplaceable partner.
In December of last year we decided that the political dialogue between the EU and Turkey needs to be strengthened. The member states still need to reach an agreement on exactly how this intensified dialogue will be arranged, but in our opinion this agreement could be reached sooner rather than later.
Since Turkey has opportunities to influence developments in areas of strategic importance for the EU, I am convinced that closer communication than previously on foreign and security issues would give clear added value.
We should avoid a situation in which the relevant consultations are not held merely because they do not fit into the formally prescribed framework of the political dialogue between the EU and the given candidate country.
The developments in Arab nations over the past few months have brought to light two completely new aspects of EU-Turkey relations that confirm the urgent need to take reciprocal co-operation to a higher level than before.
First of all, the 'Arab spring' has led us to ponder how the EU could help with building up democratic societies and socio-economic development in our southern neighbourhood. I believe that Turkey could help us with this, since it is very likely that the country could use "soft" tactics to influence the situation in a more effective way than the EU or US alone.
Let's be honest with ourselves – the new reform-minded leaders of Arab nations are more likely to look to Turkey as an example than to the reformed countries of central and eastern Europe. Hearing Turkey speak of its democratic re-organisation would most likely be more persuasive to the populations of newly-freed Northern African societies than messages from some EU capital.
There is no doubt that the EU wants to see its southern neighbours develop in a direction that would ensure stability and prosperity in the near future. Therefore, I feel that if the EU wants to influence and shape the developments on the southern shore of the Mediterranean according to its own values, it would make sense for it to do so by working together with Turkey.
Second, we must also think about how to reduce the negative side effects that accompany changes in society. The Arab spring has led to a wave of immigration into the European Union. This is a problem of great proportions, and its growth is cause for justified concern from EU member states.
Today this concern is also felt by Turkey, which has in recent years become the main transit country for migrants moving toward Europe. Taking into consideration Turkey's proximity to the main countries of origin, the visa waiver agreements it has concluded with many Arab nations, and its shared border with Europe, it is clear that the Arab spring is having a direct effect on Turkey.
More and more people are heading towards Turkey, looking for shelter and trying their luck on the EU borders. Obviously Turkey should play a vital role in finding a solution to these problems, and it should do so in close co-operation with the EU.
It seems natural that the EU waives visa requirements for candidate countries, provided that their citizens do not pose a risk to illegal immigration, public policy and security. We also must not forget that visa waivers are currently ongoing with many countries that do not have prospects for accession to the EU in the foreseeable future.
Taking into consideration Turkey's strong economic and cultural integration with Europe, the question arises as to why a visa waiver is still taboo in the EU? The reason can't be the citizens of Turkey, whose immigration and readmission does not present a problem for the EU. No, the source of the headache is the waves of migrants that pass Turkey as a transit country. However, in order to solve this issue, both sides need to show their willingness to do so.
Signing a readmission agreement would clearly mark concrete progress in the relations between the EU and Turkey. A draft agreement already exists today. It is awaiting implementation. For Turkey, the agreement means an obligation to readmit most of the third country nationals who are currently using Turkey as a layover on their way to Europe. This is a significant concession on Turkey's part and also requires some commitments by the European Union.
First of all we must not forget that the readmission agreement is dealing with consequences, it is an efficient fire distinguisher, but does not constitute a comprehensive solution to the challenges of irregular migration. If we do not help Turkey deal with the immigration flows transiting the country, it's hard to assume that the readmission agreement would make significant difference in terms of irregular migration.
It's also essential that Europe clearly shows its readiness to become more open to Turkish citizens. The EU Justice and Home Affairs Council in February took note of the European Commission's intention to start a visa dialogue with Turkey. I feel that the appropriate moment has arrived to fulfil this promise and take a concrete step towards visa freedom between the EU and Turkey.
Successfully concluded visa dialogues with the western Balkan countries serve as a good example on how step by step co-operation, based on concrete requirements, will provide a visa freedom in a secure environment.
A visa dialogue based on the concrete requirements is also the best framework for helping Turkey to reform and strengthen its border guard and asylum system. Strictly from a political point of view, the European Union should first and foremost ensure visa waiver for its closest partners, and this naturally means the candidate countries.
Turkey is the only candidate country whose citizens still need to apply for a visa when visiting European Union. This situation seems hypocritical and unfair in circumstances where the European Union is holding serious visa waiver talks with other third countries that do not have interest or prospects for accession to the EU in the foreseeable future.
I believe that the EU and Turkey should not waste any more time running in circles. The implementation of the readmission agreement and a well-defined visa dialogue providing a clear prospect for visa waiver would open up a new page in EU-Turkey relations.
Progress in visa issues would undoubtedly also help to advance the stalled accession negotiations. The EU must continue to be taken seriously and trusted when it comes to giving promises and initiating processes. For this reason, it is time to call on the European Commission to present a roadmap for visa liberalisation with Turkey, offering a clear prospect for visa freedom on the basis of clearly defined conditions.
We cannot allow ourselves to become hypocrites and gamble with the reputation of the EU's enlargement and visa policy. What has been started must be finished. We must seize our opportunities. Especially since those opportunities are within our reach.