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16th Oct 2021

Why Erdogan made a U-turn on EU visas

  • Erdogan to EU: "Look at me. Since when are you running this country?" (Photo: akparti.org.tr)

As soon as Turkish prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu was forced to resign on 5 May, president Recep Tayyip Erdogan completely changed Turkey’s long-standing visa policy and said he could wait until October to get an EU visa waiver.

After long negotiaitions with the EU, Davutoglu had won the right for Turks to start EU visa free travel at the end of June instead of in October, as previously agreed, but only if Turkey met all the conditions set by the EU.

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He was the driving force behind three EU-Turkey summits in less than five months - a first in 57 years of relations.

Now, Erdogan is threatening the EU that it must keep its promise on visa liberalisation or he will stop implementing the EU-Turkey deal to reduce migration to Europe. At the same time he says the visa deadline is October.

The stumbling block are anti-terror laws which the EU wants Turkey to amend.

The broad definition of terrorism included in the legislation has been recently used to stifle opposition, to seize the largest circulating newspaper Zaman and to imprison academics and journalists.

While Davutoglu promised the EU that the 72 requirements to get visa-free travel would be met, Erdogan now says that the Turkish government will not change its anti-terror laws because it is too busy fighting groups like the Kurdish militants PKK and the jihadist Islamic State.

Erdogan’s top priority at the moment is to turn the Turkish parliamentary system into a strong presidential one where checks and balances on his palace would be kept at a minimum.

Because he wants to change the system without delay, he will use the summer time for domestic politics, experts say.

Utku Cakirozer, an MP from the main opposition party, the CHP, believes that Erdogan needs the nationalist MHP party’s backing to build support for his case for a strong presidency and to lift the immunity of some opposition MPs in the parliament.

"The MHP is easy to convince and the prime minister's office has lost its significance. So Erdogan doesn't want to waste time to fulfill EU conditions for the visa waiver," Cakirozer told EUobserver.

"If he can achieve what he wants during summer, he will get back to the visa issue again. That is why he started talking about October as a possible date," he said.

Accusing the EU

To lure MHP to his cause, Erdogan cannot be seen as giving concessions on the fight against terror.

"Pleasing the EU and respecting fundamental freedoms and rights are not his cup of tea these days," Cakirozer said.

On several recent occasions, Erdogan lashed out at the EU and accused it of behaving like colonial governors or of supporting terror.

"Look at me. Since when are you running this country? Who has given you the authority?", he said in a rhetorical question to the EU on Wednesday (11 May) at a conference in Ankara.

"Erdogan probably had to make a choice between the nationalist rhetoric and visas and he decided that the former would bring more votes, which is certainly the right choice," Cengiz Aktar, a professor at Istanbul's Suleyman Sah University and an expert on visa issues, told this website.

Davutoglu’s high profile

Another reason why Erdogan changed his mind could be Davutoglu’s high profile during the EU summits in Brussels.

Cakirozer noted that Erdogan made it clear that he was not happy to see Davutoglu stealing the show and empowering himself in domestic politics. The Turkish leader might have thought that both the US and the EU were grooming him as an alternative, the CHP MP said.

Aktar said the departing prime minister was a figure of the past. He said that for Erdogan, "every act Davutoglu got involved in is null and void," including the EU-Turkey deal brokered in March.

EU sources told EUobserver that Turkish diplomats who worked very hard for the visa-free travel were bitterly disappointed by the overnight change in government policy.

Senior Turkish diplomats in Brussels say that Turkey, which has lost 450 security personnel since the conflict with the PKK resumed last year, cannot change the anti-terror laws.

But they admit that the requirement to amend the terror laws has existed since the visa liberalisation process was launched, despite Erdogan’s claims that it was added later.

Juncker warns Turkey over visas

Turkey will have to reform its anti-terrorism laws or the planned visa-free deal with the EU will fall apart.

Turkish leader parts way with EU

President Erdogan said that Turkey would not change terror laws as required by the EU to grant visa liberalisation and said the country needed a presidential regime.

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