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My Schengen is my castle: Europe’s visa rules against Turkey

Monday 19 October 2009, by E. Bariş Altıntaş

© No-Rıo JapanFor most ordinary Turkish citizens, it is very difficult to get into European Union countries or other countries in Europe just to visit tourist sites or see friends living in those countries for a week or two.

The process is overwhelmingly long, the bureaucracy involved daunting and the fees paid to obtain a visa are unreasonably high, but simply going through the ordeal does not guarantee the issuance of a visa. The visa barrier for Turkey is not only restrictive for the less well-to-do, but also illegal, according to legal experts.

The core of Europe’s visa regime is named Schengen, based on two agreements from 1985 and 1990. The countries in the Schengen arrangement are Belgium, Germany, Greece, Spain, France, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Austria, Portugal, Sweden, Liechtenstein and non-EU members Norway, Iceland and Switzerland. The UK and Ireland, although members of the European Union, are not part of the Schengen agreement. A Schengen visa obtained for one country is good for all countries in the arrangement.

The European Commission, the executive arm of the EU, has set the fee for a Schengen at 60 euros, regardless of the length of the individual’s stay. However, countries violate this more often than not, according to hundreds of witnesses who venture down the heartbreaking path of obtaining a Schengen visa. The price Russian citizens have to pay for a Schengen visa is around 30 euros, while the same visa is 35 euros for Ukrainians. According to Harun Gümrükçü, a professor at Akdeniz University and head of the Europe without Visas campaign, Schengen countries are deliberately misleading the public. “As a university professor, I go to a conference, and they charge me 250 euros, saying the fact that I am staying less than six months puts me into the category of an ‘employer’. They say, ‘Employers have to pay more.’ Where is the commission’s 60 euros decision? This is robbery.”

Gökhan Erhan, a representative of the Oteliks Travel Agency, also says that even applicants for tourist visas end up paying more. “There are no additional charges, per se, but some consulates employ service companies to lighten their workload.” As an example, Erhan gives Italy, where the total cost of a visa, with TL 50 paid to an intermediary company, adds up to TL 180. To apply for a French visa, you must pay 85 euros. In addition, all Schengen consulates require travel insurance, which costs anywhere from 8 euros for a week to 60 euros for a year.

In other words, if you are a Turkish passport holder and would like to visit France for a week with your family, you would have to pay 340 euros, plus possibly other charges to issue or extend passports, and might end up losing TL 1,000 before you even book your flight or reserve your hotel room. For many Turks who can spend that money at an Antalya hotel for days it comes as a rip-off, to use a polite term.

Schengen countries also show little compassion to the Turkish applicant regarding the duration for which a visa will be issued. For example, the family who paid nearly TL 1,000 just to get a visa to France in the paragraph above might have to do that again if they would like to visit a Schengen country next year. Erkan’s experience shows that consulates decide on this period based on a number of factors including the frequency of past visits to the continent, and whether they have used their visa “appropriately” [for example, if you use your Schengen visa without visiting the country of the consulate that issued it, your next application will raise eyebrows] or their status and wealth in Turkey, such as the size and position of their company.

Aside from the expenses, applying for a visa is a tedious and painstaking process. An average person employed at a private company, for instance, would have to apply with a stack of documents including two headshots (with white background), the completed application form, a copy of the tax registration certificate of their employer, a recent copy of the company’s activity document, the company’s signatory circular, a document showing that the individual has been insured under the Social Insurance Institution (SSK) by the employer, a petition by the applicant, information on bank accounts, credit cards and if possible land registry titles, an invitation from the target country if the visit is to be made to a relative there, a hotel reservation in case of leisure travel, confirmation of plane tickets (so, they actually expect you to buy your plane tickets before applying for a visa you might or might not obtain) and health insurance applicable in Europe. In other words, if you are in between jobs, or simply unemployed, it is more than likely that you can’t see the Louvre even if you work up the courage to go through the ordeal of applying for a visa. And mind you, there is no refund for all the money you pay. Although no statistics were available at the time of writing, the rejection rate is believed to be not insignificant, particularly for the unemployed.

Are EU states violating the law ?

Most European Union nationals can come to Turkey without the ordeal at a consulate, and in most cases without paying a dime at the border. The lack of reciprocity is not only unfair, it is also illegal in most cases, according to both Gümrükçü and Professor Wolfgan Voegeli, from the Hamburg School of Business, co-directors of Euromaster, a joint program of the Akdeniz and Hamburg universities.

In a lengthy statement they made on Sept. 18, Gümrükçü and Voegeli said, “The visa requirement for Turkish nationals is illegal in most cases.” The statement was based on the obligations of the EU resulting from a number of legal documents and treaties, including the Association Agreement (AA), also known as the Ankara Agreement, of 1963 and the Additional Protocol, which entered into force in January, 1973, as well as on a number of decisions made by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in individual cases where Turkish citizens were able to break the visa walls. The statement noted that the Additional Protocol clearly states that the signatories agree to “refrain from introducing between themselves any new restrictions on the freedom of establishment and the freedom to provide services.” The professors say the ECJ rulings clearly show that the law of the AA is “directly applicable.” In other words, the court’s ruling clearly states that visas introduced for Turkish citizens after the dates of these treaties amount to “new restrictions.”

“In spite of the fact that this legal situation has been clarified in the above-mentioned decisions, it must be remembered that public officers, who work on the borders of any member state of the EU, will observe internal administrative rules issued by the authorities of that particular state, rather than the law of the European Union, even if these rules are based on an inapplicable national law,” the statement noted.

But why is this so? Özdem Sanberk, a former ambassador, believes the lion’s share of responsibility in fighting the Schengen regime falls on the shoulders of the government, which is simply not doing enough. “The government has to push for this,” said Sanberk. “They should start an initiative. [Foreign Minister] Ahmet Davutoğlu should call all the ambassadors to a meeting, find out their opinions.” Sanberk said in addition to a major government initiative, the media should keep the issue in public discussion.

He also said a number of preconceptions, “demons” of the past such as prejudices against Turks and a misguided fear of immigration, are behind the EU’s visa policies against Turkey.

Daniël Stork, head of the press and cultural affairs section at the Dutch Consulate General in İstanbul, stated that according to their data the visa factor was not a deterrent for tourists. He said: “Lots of Turks visit the Netherlands every year. … We issued 19,000 visas in İstanbul and the embassy in Ankara issued 12,000. So the total was 31,000 for last year. As the Netherlands, we are and have always been happy to receive Turkish guests.” He also said that the numbers were not going down but have been stable for the past five years. “It is up to the tourists to decide,” he said, noting that Schengen countries are not the only ones demanding visas from Turkish citizens.

Most EU countries offer options that ease the visa process for businessmen, privileged groups or other industry representatives, mostly in an attempt to comply with EJC decisions. For others with too much cash to spend in their bank accounts, the visa barriers are not really barriers, anyway. However, for the ordinary Turkish citizen who has no relatives in EU countries or thousands in a bank, seeing the Colosseum, the Little Mermaid, the Eiffel Tower, or any other European landmark, unless the Turkish government presses for its citizens’ rights, remains a distant possibility.

27 September 2009, Sunday E. BARIŞ ALTINTAŞ İSTANBUL

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