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World

EU Commission hands major domestic victory to Turkish government

Following a European Commission recommendation, Turkish citizens are one step closer to easier EU travel. Ankara sees the decision as a victory, despite the major hurdles that remain. Tom Stevenson reports fom Istanbul.

The European Commission's decision to recommend a Schengen visa waiver for Turkish citizens has the government in Ankara celebrating.

The European Commission has been criticized for extending a major diplomatic boon to Turkey at a time when the country is prosecuting a brutal war in its south-eastern provinces, curtailing free speech rights and deporting foreign journalists - including the correspondents of major European media.

In Turkey the decision has been hailed as a victory for the government, and in particular for Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, who negotiated the deal.

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EU Commission backs Turkey visa deal

'Realpolitik wins'

The 90-day visa waiver was offered as part of a deal with the EU that saw Turkey agree to receive and shelter deported migrants from Greece in return for budgetary support amounting to 3 billion euros ($3.45 billion).

Speaking before the announcement to the "Daily Sabah," a newspaper widely seen as the Turkish government's English-language mouthpiece, Turkey's EU Deputy Minister Ali Sahin said he expected unconditional support for the visa deal. "Turkey does not accept conditional approval [on the visa waiver] ... it should not be forgotten that the EU needs Turkey as much as [Turkey needs] the EU."

The European Commission decided to recommend a vote on the visa waiver if outstanding commitments, including five additional criteria, are met by Turkey by June.

Türkei Protest gegen Ismail Kahraman Ankara

The Turkish government has been criticized for harsh crackdowns on protesters. Last month, the parliamentary speaker sparked more protests by calling for an Islamic constitution

"This is a major victory for the government, and for the prime minister," said Soli Ozel, lecturer at Istanbul's Kadir Has University. "The visa waiver is important for the general population in Turkey, but very important for the business community and the academic community."

"Without going through it, it's difficult to understand how much of a draining experience the visa process is, and it generates a lot of unfair competition with a country that has a customs union with the EU."

According to Ozel, the visa deal may be a step in the right direction, but it also displays hypocrisy in both parties.

"In these deals everybody is unveiled. It used to be that both sides played their hypocrisy more carefully, but now it's out in the open and obvious - the refugee situation is a big headache and so Turkey can get whatever it wants by using that."

"The EU can hang its principles wherever it wants: realpolitik wins."

The Commission's decision must now be approved by the individual EU member states and the European Parliament before it will pass into effect, which could take as long as two months.

Erdogan in a comfortable position

The two parties are also currently negotiating Turkey's accession to the European Union, however the process has been slow going, with just one chapter having been successfully closed out of a total of 33 that must be negotiated before a vote on accession is possible.

"It isn't over until it's over, of course, but my hunch is that despite some disgruntled members disagreeing the European Council will also accept recommendation and I think it is the right thing to do," Ozel told DW.

"If it were to go south however, Prime Minister Davutoglu would take a big blow to his credibility because he has staked his reputation on this big promise. But Turkey always has the leverage of a backlash in which it refuses to cooperate on the refugees."

Türkei Ahmet Davutoglu und Tayyip Erdogan

President Erdogan and Prime Minister Davutglu (left to right) see the decison as a victory. The prime minister has the most to lose if the deal doesn't work

Meeting the outstanding EU criteria may exacerbate existing power struggles in Turkish politics surrounding some of the more sensitive matters, including counterterrorism, according to Sinan Ulgen, director of the Istanbul-based EDAM think tank and a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Center in Brussels.

"There will now be a political tug of war on whether Turkey will be intent on fulfilling the criteria, some of which are sensitive," Ulgen told DW. "Turkey must confront its framework for dealing with terrorism at a time when government considers there to be a very sizeable terrorism threat - it's doubtful that there will be much movement in that direction."

According to Ulgen, Prime Minister Davutoglu may have much to lose or gain by this deal but Turkey's president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is in a more comfortable position. Should the deal succeed, he can reap the benefits; if it falls through, he can place the blame on Europe, lowering the stakes for himself.

"Domestically the few criticisms of this deal that will come from the opposition will not matter. Visa liberalization is long awaited and it will be a substantive win, silencing government critics," Ulgen said.

"There are still a number of important obstacles, and the European Parliament has questions about the overall state of democracy in Turkey, so it has the potential to poison the deal. However, this is an important milestone absolutely."

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