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In Turkey, European travel hopes dissolve

Turkish nationals eager to travel to Europe untrammelled by wads of visa applications appear to have had their hopes dashed by a power struggle in the ruling party. Tom Stevenson reports from Istanbul.

When the European Council released its report on May 4 recommending the European Union institute visa-free travel to the Schengen area for Turkey, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu and his negotiating team were celebrating. So too were thousands of Turkish nationals who looked forward to easier business and leisure trips to Europe.

However the celebrations were shorter-lived than any expected. The following day, the long-running tension between Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan appeared to finally snap and Davutoglu announced his resignation that evening.

From then on, things moved fast. First, Erdogan pledged that Turkey would not reform its anti-terrorism laws in order to satisfy the stipulations of the European Council's recommendation, effectively rejecting the key condition of the deal.

By May 10, the European Parliament had announced that it had stopped work on the visa deal completely. Turkey's minister for EU affairs, Volkan Bozkir, said he was "losing hope" of seeing a deal done at all - a sentiment shared on the streets of Istanbul.

"At this point I fear the visa deal won't happen at all and I hope that it doesn't happen as part of this deal with Europe over refugees. It should happen of course but not like this - we should never have arrived at the point of putting the refugees on the table, it's inhuman," said Berin Erdem, who works as a chemist.

"It's all about pride for Erdogan. He is working for himself: he doesn't care about visas, he only cares that no one has the power to cross him," he told DW.

End of the road?

Davutoglu's departure appeared to herald the end for the visa deal along with the prospects of freer travel to Europe for Turkey's citizens, and a fresh wave of nationalist sentiment emanated from Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

The visa deal was originally conceived as part of a wider agreement between Turkey and the EU that allows Europe to deport migrants who have crossed the Aegean sea back to Turkey - the latter acting as a gatekeeper against mass migration to Europe.

people climbing on a fence copyright: BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images

There are concerns that the EU-Turkey deal is being played out to the detriment of refugees

As the visa deal was collapsing, Burhan Kuzu, one of president Erdogan's senior advisers, put out a statement to the effect that if Europe fails to offer visa-free travel, Turkey will "send the refugees."

Turkey's foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, was particularly critical of the EU's demand that Turkey reform its counter-terrorism laws. "Telling us to change our anti-terror law at a time when we are fighting against the PKK and Daesh [the "Islamic State" group] amounts to supporting terrorism. We will never give into such impositions," Cavusoglu said earlier this week at a meeting of Turkish businessmen in Vienna.

The pro-government Turkish press has also changed its position on the EU visa deal. "Those who failed all tests against a humanitarian crisis are trying to create areas of weakness in Turkey's struggle against threats targeting the country's integrity. They are attempting a sinister intervention aimed at paving the way for terrorism, making room for terror organizations," wrote Ibrahim Karagul, a prominent commentator for the Yeni Safak daily with links to the AKP.

Getting it right

"The condition of narrowing the definition of what constitutes terrorism in Turkey is important because at present the definition is very broad," said Ozan Sarkar the Managing Director of Descartes Capital Advisors, a private firm that works with international investors in Turkey.

"The problem is that if someone were deemed a terrorist in Turkey but not in Europe then they would be able to seek asylum in Europe without getting a visa. Europe has argued that Turkey should put the rules in line with theirs, partly out of the fear of an asylum wave," he said.

Thousands of political refugees sought asylum in Europe after the 1980 military coup in Turkey, and many still live in Europe to this day.

Sarkar points out that until the military coup, Turkish nationals didn't require a visa to visit most European countries. Initially there was little political will to change this as many politicians had access to a superior class of passport that was not subject to the visa restrictions.

passport Copyright: picture-alliance/dpa

Over the years Turkey has been pushing for visa-free travel

However successive Turkish governments have been working to lift the restrictions since Turkey entered into a customs union with the EU in 1995.

"Of course gaining visa-free travel would be a massive political gain for any Turkish politician, whoever was in power. Erdogan said before that he was negotiating it and Davutoglu came and stole some of the limelight," Sarkar told DW.

Erdogan is widely considered to have been working to consolidate his power within Turkey and within the AKP over the past two years.

"Constitutionally speaking, Erdogan has been stretching the position of president beyond what it has meant historically," Sarkar added. "He is the first directly elected president of the country, however removing a prime minister who was elected only last November was an unexpected stretch."

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