Visa advocacy and the Turkey White List Project – A story of policy impact

Meeting with President Abdullah Gul in Ankara (March 2013)
Meeting with President Abdullah Gul in Ankara (March 2013)

Supported by Stiftung Mercator

On 16 December 2013 the EU-Turkey visa liberalisation process was launched. For the EU Home Affairs Commissioner this was a "day of historical importance". For the ESI White List Project, supported by Stiftung Mercator since 2011, it was the culmination of years of effort. During this period we wrote numerous reports, gave many presentations, and presented our arguments to presidents (in Turkey), prime ministers and ministers (Sweden, Italy, Latvia, Croatia, Slovakia, Greece, Finland, Belgium …), diplomats and senior officials across Europe. We published op-eds in major European papers and briefed journalists, parliamentarians and civil society organisations.

The starting point in 2011

In 2011, the White List Project set out to work for a visa liberalisation process for Turkey. At the time, few observers thought that the breakthrough that would take place in December 2013 was possible. At a meeting of the Justice and Home Affairs Council in February 2011, EU interior ministers were not only opposed to a visa liberalisation process with Turkey; they even insisted on not including the words "visa liberalisation" in their conclusions. Turkey perceived this as a slap in the face. "Turkey is not a second-class country," tweeted Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu in early 2011: "We want equal treatment like every civilised nation." Belief that anything could be achieved with the EU was at rock bottom in Turkey.

Remember: it seemed hopeless before

In such a situation it was crucial that ESI had worked on the question of visa-free travel for a very long time. We remembered how hopeless the situation appeared to the Balkans as recently as 2006. Then too it had not discouraged us to push for a change in EU policy. The key, we realised, is to have credible and strong arguments, backed by hard facts, to address and convince many different audiences in different countries. We needed to understand concerns and very different perspectives: those of civil society organisations in countries seeking visa free travel (who played an important role), of ministry of interior officials in sceptical EU member states, of journalists often baffled by the technical complexity of the debates. This meant that we had to ourselves acquire and constantly update our technical expertise. We also needed to keep open many channels of communication: a network of high level contacts in EU institutions and EU governments; an Advisory Board with former interior ministers including Otto Schily, Giuliano Amato and Charles Clarke; a mapping of key people shaping the policy debates on issues linked to visa free travel.

Nothing inspires like success

Following the success of our work on the Balkans, where five countries obtained visa free travel in 2009-2010, we could also refer to an inspiring story of how effort and reforms lead to results. Now interest in visa liberalisation increased rapidly. Civil society organisations and governments of countries keen to embark on visa liberalisation with the EU (Moldova, Ukraine, Georgia, Kosovo) contacted us to ask for advice. Only in Turkey we found that very strong scepticism prevailed in almost all constituencies. The Balkans inspired Moldovans, but in Turkey we were told again and again that "this was a special case" ... and any experiences from elsewhere were therefore irrelevant.

Bitter feelings

In 2011 EU-Turkey relations were already in a bad state. We did not know it at the time, but they were about to get even worse. For three years not one chapter was opened in the accession negotiations. Recriminations grew. The rhetoric grew bitter. The challenges to the EU reform agenda inside Turkey only grew.

Meeting on Visa with Otto Schily and Giuliano Amato

First focus: EU reluctance

In July 2011, Stiftung Mercator agreed to fund work on visa liberalisation for Turkey. This was a bold step, given the uncertainties. We were convinced that the Turkey White List Project could make a difference, but we had our work cut out for us. Our initial focus was obvious: we had to overcome the EU's reservations and to convince policy makers to offer Turkey the same process that the Western Balkan countries had successfully undergone.

To advance this case, we publicised our arguments that there was a chance for a win-win situation. We argued in EU countries how the EU might benefit from such a process with Turkey. We did so in numerous meetings with EU officials. We briefed ambassadors of the big EU countries in Ankara (Germany, UK, France). We made dozens of presentations in Brussels and EU capitals. We also set out to inform Turkish officials – and civil society in Ankara and Istanbul – how to best argue their case in meetings with EU institutions.

We launched a detailed website with background analysis on the issue. We twice met the director general in the Commission who was working on home affairs, and numerous times the director general of DG enlargement dealing with Turkey. We explained the argument to the chief of cabinet of Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom. We met regularly with senior Turkish officials, including President Abdullah Gül in Ankara.

Talking about Tukey's prospects for a visa free regime with the EU – Gerald Knaus, Amanda Paul, Henrik Ankerstjerne, and Elizabeth Collett. Photo: EP
ESI presentation in Brussels at European Policy Center on visa liberalisation

These activities paid off: on 21 June 2012, the EU and Turkey initialed a readmission agreement, the EU's precondition for offering the process, and the Council formally invited the European Commission to launch it. As we had strongly argued, the Council was now prepared to issue a visa liberalisation roadmap to Turkey.

From June 2012 until early 2013, we worked to ensure that this visa liberalisation roadmap for Turkey was strict, but fair. The roadmap was drafted by the European Commission in consultation with EU member states in the second half of 2012. Finalised in December 2012, it lists some 70 conditions. Throughout this time we continued to explain the benefits of a visa liberalisation process to both sides, in 85 bilateral meetings and more than 15 public events.

We met a large number of decision makers: officials of the European Commission, the main interlocutor for Turkey, including Maria Asenius, the head of the cabinet of Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmström; Laurent Muschel, the deputy head; Stefano Manservisi, the Director-General for Home Affairs; Stefano Sannino, the Director-General for Enlargement. We met representatives of the then Irish EU Presidency and the Danish Presidency under which the EU had offered the visa liberalisation process in June 2012;

Gerald Knaus, Giuliano Amato, Anna Maria Cancellieri, and Alexandra Stiglmayer. Photo: ESI
Meeting the Italian minister of internal affairs in Rome 2012

We also produced an overview – a "Who is Who" – of the Turkey visa policy process, mapping the key institutions and individuals we needed to reach. We continued to inform Turkish officials about processes going on concerning the Western Balkan visa liberalisation process (which was at various times put into question) as well as the process with Moldova, which had also been launched.

View of the panel. Photo: The Istanbul Forum
ESI presentation on visa liberalisation in Istanbul

Second focus: Turkish concerns and misconceptions

During 2013, the biggest challenge was addressing Turkish concerns about several roadmap conditions. The focus was on convincing Turkey that the process was in its interest. To do that, we had to understand Turkish concerns; some were reasonable, others based on misunderstandings or – worse – lack of interest in engaging with the EU at all. To this end:

  • We obtained the complete written correspondence between the Turkish Foreign Minister and the Home Affairs Commissioner; we also maintained very close contacts with the whole Turkey team in DG enlargement, and the EU delegation in Ankara.
  • We spoke at length – sometimes every two weeks – to senior Turkish officials, including Turkey's Ambassador to the EU Selim Yenel and Haluk Ilicak, the most senior civil servant at the Turkish Ministry for EU Affairs;
  • We did research on all the issues that Turkey was concerned about. This included a research trip to Finland, which brought us up to speed on Integrated Border Management;
  • One result was our report Cutting the Visa Knot – How Turks can travel freely to Europe, which we published on 21 May 2013. In this report, we explained and examined the Turkish concerns with a view to addressing them:
  • Turkey's fear that a readmission agreement with the EU – which was the EU's condition for launching the process - would force Turkey to accept back from the EU tens of thousands of third-country nationals. We showed that its concerns were misplaced. The numbers we published on the experience with other readmission agreements were later widely quoted in internal Turkish debates among ministries.
  • Turkey's reluctance to offer asylum to asylum-seekers who are not from Europe (Turkey's geographical limitation on the UN Refugee Convention). We noted that a new law on foreigners and international protection, which the Turkish parliament adopted in April 2013, helped to resolve this issue to some extent, and that the EU should take into account that Turkey was hosting hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees during this period as well.
  • Turkey's unwillingness to align its visa policy with that of the EU and to introduce airport transit visas. We showed that these requirements were vaguely worded, and argued that these conditions only had to be fulfilled upon Turkish accession to the EU.
  • Turkey's reluctance to ratify two protocols to the European Convention on Human Rights. We noted that these had not been ratified by many EU member states. We argued that these conditions – inserted by Cyprus - had little to do with visa-free travel.

ESI presentation on visa liberalisation in Brussels

Our recommendations

We also made many concrete recommendations how Turkish diplomacy could cut the "Gordian knot" of visa-free travel in five strokes to help overcome the impasse, which served nobody:

"First: Turkey needs to remind the EU that the visa dialogue is not part of the accession process. Instead, it is a negotiation between equals. Both sides want something: the EU wants a readmission agreement and help in addressing illegal migration from Turkey; Turkey wants visa-free travel. Turkey should state publicly at the outset that it will not accept everything in the roadmap. It is not prepared to introduce airport transit visas, to align its visa policy with that of the EU before full accession, to lift the geographical limitation as part of a visa dialogue, nor to ratify protocols to the European Convention on Human Rights that have not been ratified by all EU member states.

"Second: Turkey should declare that it will sign, ratify and then even implement the readmission agreement in line with its legal obligations. However, under the terms of the negotiated readmission agreement it will be obliged to take back third-country nationals only three years after the entry into force of the agreement.

"Third: Turkey could demand to see steady progress in the mobility of bona fide Turkish visitors to the EU, including a decline in the rejection rate for visa applications from Turks, and an increase in the share of long-term multiple-entry visas issued.

"Fourth: There are two vital areas where Turkey can help build trust inside the EU. One is reducing irregular migration to the EU via Turkey's land and maritime borders. The other is readmission of irregular third-country migrants. Since Turkey is under no legal obligation to do so for three years even after ratifying the readmission agreement, it can decide on the numbers to take back from EU member states all by itself.

"Fifth: Turkey should set a realistic deadline. By the end of 2015, at the latest, Turkish travellers should enjoy visa-free travel. If in this period there is no vote, or if the vote is negative, Turkey will notify the EU that the readmission agreement will cease to be in force. This is a legitimate option under the negotiated text of the agreement."

Talking about European border management and Turkey with Finnish border generals

The key: communication

The key in this phase was to communicate these recommendations to as many Turkish stakeholders in the debate as possible.

Obviously we translated the report and distributed it to Turkish stakeholders. We presented the recommendations at events including a conference organised by the Turkish EU Ministry in June 2013 in Istanbul ("Rethinking Global Challenges: Constructing a Common Future for Turkey and the EU" as well as at a briefing organised by ESI and Columbia Global Centres in Istanbul in June 2013 ("Cutting the Turkey-EU Visa Knot. How Turks can travel freely to Europe"). We presented our ideas in numerous bilateral meetings. We met former Turkish ambassadors to the EU (Ozdem Sanberk), the chair of the EU committee in the Turkish parliament, the EU advisor of President Gül.

During this period ESI's Gerald Knaus met twice with Undersecretary Haluk Ilicak – the highest civil servant – at the Turkish Ministry for EU Affairs, once for a two-hour discussion in Ankara. At the same time we spoke to other Turkish officials as well, such as the Deputy Undersecretary for EU Affairs Burak Erdenir and Turkey's Ambassador to the EU Selim Yenel.

A small breakthrough

In the end our arguments fell on fertile ground. When the visa liberalisation process was finally launched on 16 December 2013 the obstacles that had existed for more than a year were overcome following all of our specific recommendations:

  • As we had suggested, both Turkey and the European Commission portrayed the signing of the readmission agreement and the simultaneous launch of the visa liberalisation process as the result of negotiations between two equal partners and stressed that it was "a dialogue". EU Affairs Minister Bagis announced that Turkey and the EU had "come to a mutual understanding". Home Affairs Commissioner Malmstrom described the launch as cooperation:

"The cooperation between the European Union and Turkey has made a significant step forward. We have started two initiatives in parallel which will boost the relations between Turkey and the European Union and bring benefits for their citizens."

  • As ESI had recommended, a pre-arranged meeting between Turkish and Commission officials took place where the Turkish side expressed their concerns and submitted an "annotated roadmap". The Commission showed understanding: "We understand [the Turkish concerns] with sympathy," Malmstrom explained. "We will try to find solutions to these."
  • Concerning the most sensitive point, the readmission agreement, the Turkish side used ESI's arguments and facts to justify its compromises to the Turkish public.
  • As ESI had suggested, Turkey also set a deadline by which the EU should lift the visa requirement. Turkey's Ambassador to the EU explained to us that they took into account that the clause obliging them to accept back irregular third-country nationals under the readmission agreement would become effective three years after the entry into force of the agreement. Within six months of this date, they would like to see the abolition of the visa requirement. This makes three-and-a-half years. Among others, Prime Minister Erdogan said:

"With our respective signatures today, visa-free travel for the citizens of the Turkish Republic has begun. We have agreed on a roadmap. Turkey has signed the readmission agreement. In three to three-and-a-half years, visa-free travel to Europe will start."

  • Bagis and Turkish Foreign Ministry spokespeople clarified to journalists that Turkey will cancel the readmission agreement if it does not receive visa-free travel at the end of the process.
  • The Turkish side also picked up ESI's proposal that the EU in the meantime show its seriousness by steady progress in the mobility of bona fide Turkish visitors to the EU. They extracted from the Commission the promise that the visa requirement for certain groups of Turkish travellers will be eased. We then followed up on this with a discussion paper that makes concrete proposals: Trust and travel. Easing the visa burden for Turks in five steps (24 February 2014).

Gerald Knaus. Photo: Austrian Embassy to the United Kingdom
ESI presentation in London at Austrian Embassy for diplomatic corps on visa liberalisation

The basis: solid research

The main reason our advocacy was taken seriously was because of the research that was behind it. Besides Cutting the visa knot we published another four papers during 2013:

We also regularly updated the Turkey visa website: Turkey – the European promise.

We published a number of newsletters sent to 33,000 subscribers:

Gerald Knaus and Ebru Turhan
Presentation on Visa in Istanbul

On the presentation circuit

Finally, we continued to present the issue of visa liberalisation for Turkey and Turkey-EU relations at many events:

Presentation in Vienna. Photo: ESI
ESI briefing in Visa liberalisation at OSCE Human Dimension Meeting in Vienna

We gave many interviews and published many op-eds – please look at the collection of media clippings on our website. Highlights include:

EU ambassadors at the Swedish residence in Ankara
ESI briefing EU ambassadors in Ankara 2014

On lessons from the visa process for EU accession talks with Turkey

Finally, we continuously briefed a large number of journalists in Brussels, in Istanbul and across Europe, also giving interviews to TRT and other media. These included:

Brussels, 8 March 2013, Matthias Krupa, correspondent of Die Zeit, and Nikolaj Nielsen from the EUobserver; Istanbul, 3 May 2013; Michael Martens, Turkey correspondent of Die Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung; Brussels, 23 and 24 September 2013, Aykut Yildir, correspondent of Turkey's public broadcaster TRT; Brussels, 9 December 2013, Mete Ozturk, correspondent of Zaman, and Feyzullah Yarimbas, Anadolu Agency. Brussels, 18 December 2013, a team of TRT journalists from Ankara and Zaman correspondent Selcuk Gultasli.

We undertook advocacy and research trips to many EU capitals including Berlin, Brussels, Budapest, Helsinki, London, Paris, Rome, Stockholm, Zagreb, Warsaw and Vienna as well as several times to Ankara and Istanbul.

Meeting room
Visa White List Advisory Board meeting in Rome with Giuliano Amato

Iulian Groza, Nigar Goksel, and Burak Erdenir
Discussion in Rome on visa and Turkey – ESI analyst Nigar Goksel,
deputy foreign minister of Moldova and deputy undersecretary for EU affairs of Turkey