In a recent poll, more than a third of Turks said that the European Union is a more valued partner than China, Russia, and the United States combined. Yet, if tourist visas are any indication, the EU doesn’t hold the same opinion of Turkey.
Schengen visa approvals for Turkish travelers have fallen off a cliff in recent years, sparking outrage across the political divide. After a nearly five-fold increase in visa rejections for Turkish applicants, the Turkish foreign ministry accused the EU of burdening Turks with “unnecessary and large amounts of paperwork,” and even suggested that the refusals are a “planned and deliberate act” by European countries.
There’s plenty of blame to go around for the escalating visa crisis. With 5.5 million Turks living in Western Europe (out of 6.5 million living abroad), many believe that Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu is derelict in looking out for Turks’ interests. Given the importance of Europe to the Turkish people, why hasn’t Turkey negotiated better terms for its own citizens?
Cavusoglu had a chance to answer this question in June. During a meeting with his Norwegian counterpart, Anniken Huitfeldt, Turkey’s foreign minister granted Norwegians the ability to enter Turkey temporarily by using only a Norwegian ID card. But instead of securing a similar arrangement for Turkish passport holders, Cavusoglu received nothing.
On social media, the Turkish public was incensed. “Such news can only be good if the same conditions apply to Turkish citizens,” one person wrote on Twitter. “Norwegian citizens …get an easy visa. Turkish citizens [must] document …seven generation[s]” just to spend a few days on holiday. It was an exaggeration, of course, but not by much.
For a short-term Schengen visa, Turks must provide proof of travel insurance, accommodation, airfare, tax certificates, social security documentation, work contracts, deeds, and evidence of sufficient funds. Many applicants fail to meet this threshold. Today, 20 percent of Turkish applicants are denied entry to the EU. In 2015, it was closer to 4 percent.
The EU, for its part, denies any mistreatment of a single country and insists that Turkey is not in its bureaucratic crosshairs. The EU Commission says the rejection of Turkish visas in 2022 is only 0.4 percent above the global refusal average, and that a shortage of staff and new regulations are limiting available visa slots. Meanwhile, the EU ambassador to Turkey, Nikolaus Meyer-Landrut, says that most of the recent Turkish rejections were the result of “incomplete and potentially fraudulent” applications.
To be sure, Turks aren’t without their own visa transgressions. Official visas have been misused by Turks to stay in European countries and seek asylum. In September 2020, 43 of 45 Justice and Development Party members from Yesilyurt stayed in Germany after traveling there for work. A similar incident occurred in October 2019, when Adana’s Karatas district, in southern Turkey, sent 30 musicians to a festival in Germany; more than half refused to return.
And yet, punishing every Turkish visa applicant for the misdeeds of a few doesn’t sit well with the public. At eksisozluk.com, one of Turkey’s largest online communities, 55 pages of angry comments are dedicated to the subject of Schengen visa rejections. One user wrote that a friend with 10-year visas to Britain and the US was rejected for the Schengen. Another speculated that despite Moscow’s aggression in Ukraine, Russians appear to be having an easier time entering Europe than Turks (this perception could change if a new EU proposal to make it more expensive and harder for Russians to travel to the bloc is enacted).
Whatever the truth may be, a consensus is growing on the Turkish street that the Schengen visa is in place to keep Turks out.
The financial cost of such an exclusion is immense. Turkish citizens have paid more than €26 million to obtain Schengen visas over the last five years. In 2021, Turks paid more than €3.6 million in fees for rejected Schengen visas, and that number is certain to increase this year.
Turks have a lot to be angry about. The devaluation of their currency hasn’t helped the visa debacle, but neither has their own government, which seems more interested in luring foreign tourists to Turkey than in helping Turks see the world.
Even if there has been misuse of the Schengen visa system in the past, Turkish and EU leaders have a duty to work through those challenges. For Europe to remain the envy of the Turkish eye, the EU must let Turkish travelers experience Europe for themselves.
Alexandra de Cramer is a journalist based in Istanbul. She reported on the Arab Spring from Beirut as a Middle East correspondent for Milliyet newspaper. Her work ranges from current affairs to culture, and has been featured in Monocle, Courier Magazine, Maison Francaise, and Istanbul Art News.