International support after the earthquake that struck 10 regions in southern Türkiye and the quake-related human catastrophe that unfolded was and is a fast and highly appreciated sign of solidarity in a time of unprecedented suffering. This includes many European Union nations doing their best by whatever means possible, be it dispatching rescue teams or providing financial aid.
In the meantime, European governments have started a debate about whether or not to ease the currently enforced regular visa application procedures. We shall return to that point of why there are visa stipulations in the first place in the second part of this opinion.
Berlin: Green light
The German government announced that relatives of nationals of Türkiye, as well as Syria who face homelessness or other serious consequences such as medical reasons, will be able to fast-track their visa applications as long as they lived in one of the 10 affected provinces. Furthermore, potential visa holders must be relatives, first or second-grade, respectively, of either a German citizen or someone having acquired German residency. The person inviting that person will then sign a declaration the person meets all linked costs.
However, the tricky issue with this very laudable initiative is that standard visa application rules have not been waived. It is nevertheless anticipated that processing the paperwork will be swift; nine instead of often up to 17 separate supporting documents are required.
Besides, and what is promising too, is that the cumbersome procedure to make appointments has been canceled; applicants can visit the outsourced application centers without registering online, mainly with a waiting period of many weeks or even months. Another welcome detail is that issuing the visa does not incur any fees for the applicant.
When I was writing this piece, Belgium, the Netherlands and Switzerland came forward with similar proposals, while United Kingdom citizens made plans to ask their governments to do the same. It is assumed that in the coming days, more European states will follow suit, although one country – Austria – already announced it would not join. However, as there is widespread resentment of this approach, and chances are Vienna will at some point make a political U-turn as Austrian rescue teams played a vital role on the ground in Türkiye. Public support is enormous with regards to helping Türkiye in whatever way thinkable, including many efforts by Austrian civil society.
While on the one hand, it must be noted that the visas in question would have a validity of three months; on the other hand, the German Foreign Office has not – as of yet – announced whether or not they could theoretically be extended.
Why would Turkish nationals need visas anyways?
This brings us to our next observation – why do Turkish nationals need a visa to travel to Germany, into the Schengen Zone, or to the United Kingdom, to begin with?
Many European citizens can visit Türkiye without a visa and for up to a maximum duration of 90 days. It is a perfect opportunity for a traveler to spend quality time with friends and family, as it is for bona fide tourists. This visa-free travel scheme perfectly mirrors the good bilateral relations between Türkiye and its European partner countries; after all, it is a sign of the times in the sense that allies and friendly nations should ease rules and laws about travel by nationals of each side.
The trouble is that it is a one-sided approach, as Türkiye went ahead while Europe did not. For a long period, debates have been ongoing between Brussels and Ankara about the conditions to establish a mechanism that would allow for short-term visa-free travel from Türkiye to the Schengen area. That visa liberalization process stalled after Ankara, although having complied a long list of benchmarks – 72 in total – saw Brussels insisting on five of those in particular and thus refused to grant visa-free travel rights to Turkish nationals.
Critics argue that the road map is far too extensive and can easily be misused as an excuse to keep Ankara in the visa dialogue waiting room, so to speak. Experts often highlighted one point of disagreement: Türkiye is supposed to modify domestic legislation to align the legal framework with European standards related to terrorism. But this is a misleading demand. Whereas the definition of what constitutes an act of terrorism is, in all likelihood, universally agreed upon, situations on the ground greatly vary. Some European Union member states face a higher threat level of potential terrorist attacks than others. And Türkiye, for many decades, witnessed heinous terrorist activities targeting its citizens and territorial integrity alike, with the outlawed PKK as a case in point, being responsible for the deaths of over 40,000 people, including women and children.
One might feel tempted to tell Brussels that instead of asking Ankara to modify its legislation related to the subject of terror, the EU itself should make the reverse. In light of recent outbreaks of violence in European cities, notably Paris late last year, it would be time to analyze European legal stipulations in this context.
And then there is the even more excellent picture. It has been argued that granting visa liberalization would constitute one of the last remaining steps before offering full membership to the block. As some circles in Brussels’ corridors of power vehemently oppose such a move, using a few items from the visa liberalization dialogue road map as an excuse is not only unfair but illogical as well.
On a more general note, Europe is at a crossroads. Many European nations are currently confronted by an increase in racist activities on their very own soil. This is, in most instances, the direct result of so-called populist politicians who single out the other and return to promoting xenophobia and Islamophobia. The European public is not racist, it is made to think that migration and immigration are bad news. It is made to believe that there are no benefits to living in a multicultural society in harmony. Many mainstream media fall into the same ideological trap cleverly laid out by far-right leaders and their supporters.
Shockingly, modern Türkiye has become the scapegoat, the entity to channel the hate toward.
But it is not too late – if the EU’s leaders understand that the only way forward is to turn into a socially and politically more inclusive group of nations and stop allowing anti-democratic forces to make headlines, the EU could once again become a hallmark for abolishing frontiers instead of erecting new ones. Europe’s post-war generation wanted to create a typical house, a shared set of democratic norms and values. Granted, at one point it became too bureaucratic, and the threat of a “Superstate Europe” led many citizens to question the necessity of having a European Union in the first place.
This, in turn, enabled populists to take center stage, lying to the public in two ways. First, filtering out a certain dissatisfaction among the public vis-à-vis the European institutions and then second, camouflaging their racist opinions by explaining that it is Brussels’ fault when things go wrong. More recently COVID-19 was misused as one such topic.
A more proactive Europe could perhaps still stem the tide. This includes finally realizing that a proud and enterprising nation such as Türkiye would greatly help the EU to achieve exactly this.
It is a welcome sign that several EU member states have eased the visa application procedure in the wake of a human catastrophe. European nations came to the rescue with their manpower and many other forms of support during the earthquake. Europe has indeed a human dimension and a very big one for that matter. Let us all build on that – easing visa application procedures is a welcome development, and abolishing bona fide Schengen zone visas for nationals of Türkiye should follow suit.