Let them in.

Photographer: Kayhan Ozer/AFP/Getty Images

Europe's Short-Term Visas Target the Wrong Countries

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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The spat between the European Union and Turkey over visa-free travel is heating up. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey is demanding the abolition of visas for his citizens, or else he'll renege on a deal that has reduced the flood of refugees to the EU to a trickle. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker told Erdogan that won't get him anywhere. 

This public fight is futile. Europe could safely cancel visas for Turkey and many other countries: The benefits would far outweigh the costs. 

QuickTake Europe's Migrant Crisis

The EU struck its deal with Turkey in March. Erdogan agreed that his country would take back undocumented immigrants who arrive in Europe by the Balkan route, which was used by more than 1 million people last year. In return, he demanded 6 billion euros ($6.7 billion) in aid and an end to short-term Schengen zone visas for Turks by the end of June. The Europeans promised the money and agreed to expedite visa liberalization "provided that all benchmarks have been met." 

Erdogan appears to have missed that caveat. On Wednesday, he said the immigrant readmission agreement wouldn't pass the Turkish parliament if visa-free travel wasn't granted. "Turkey is supposed to fulfill criteria? What criteria are these I ask you?" he fumed

Juncker's reply was prompt and equally sharp. "We do expect that Turkey will stick to its commitments -- and threats are not the best diplomatic instrument you can use," he said. "So one should stop to use them, because they will produce no effect whatsoever."

There are 72 criteria that Turkey is supposed to meet, and further work is needed on only five of them, according to a May 4 document from the European Commission. These are, however, the hardest to implement: They concern anti-corruption legislation, police and judicial cooperation with the EU, personal data protection to EU standards and, most importantly to Erdogan, changes to legislation that now allows him to persecute journalists and academics for "terrorist propaganda."

Erdogan's repression of dissent is deplorable. One might wonder, however, what this has to do with 90-day tourist visas to the EU. After all, if someone needs to escape persecution, the need to get a visa is a serious barrier.

In practical terms, the EU's "black list" of countries whose citizens require visas is meant to keep out undocumented immigrants. It's a blunt tool for that purpose, though. There is a correlation of about 0.6 between the number of a country's citizens apprehended in Europe for being there illegally in a given year and the share of rejected visa applications from that country. Officials have a highly approximate idea of the propensity of citizens from specific countries to overstay their visas -- but in many cases, they don't act on the information. 

In 2014, Schengen area countries issued 5.7 million visas to Russians, and less than 0.01 percent of that number of Russians were caught that year for being in Europe illegally. For Turkey, the ratio is about the same. Chinese citizens received 1.7 million visas, and only 0.5 percent of that number were apprehended. The number of undocumented immigrants from these three countries is small -- slightly more than 27,000, compared with Europe's population of more than 500 million. And it isn't small because the EU countries are doing a good job of filtering out risky applications: Visa refusal rates are quite small -- 1 percent for Russia, 3 percent for China, 4 percent for Turkey. 

The risk of letting Turkish, Chinese and Russian citizens travel to Europe visa-free -- for tourism, not work purposes -- would therefore be negligible. Letting them travel freely would only give Europe an economic boost given their huge potential for tourist spending.

Yet other countries, which supply more undocumented immigrants, are closer to visa liberalization than these safe ones -- or even are exempted from the need for short-term visas.

In 2014, 14,120 Serbs -- who don't have to apply for short-term visas -- were apprehended for being in the EU illegally, almost as many as Turkish and Chinese nationals combined. The number of Georgians caught reached 8 percent of the number of visas issued in that country, and Georgia is likely to be granted visa-free status this year -- along with Ukraine, which supplied 60 percent more undocumented immigrants to the EU in 2014 than Russia.

The logic behind this has nothing to do with curbing irregular migration. It's purely political. Many of Europe's criteria for a visa-free regime with a non-member country have to do with the Europeanization of those countries' domestic rules: They demand, for example, strong anti-discrimination and anti-corruption laws. It's a mechanism of European "soft power": If a government wants to offer its citizens hassle-free travel to Paris and Rome, it needs to adopt certain European values.

Russia and China either won't comply with these requirements or will only pay lip service to them, so they're not likely to have the visa requirement waived. Georgia, Serbia and Moldova are more likely to attempt to meet the political demands, the latter two countries' citizens can already travel visa-free, and Georgians will soon get to do so, too.

The political logic is deeply flawed. It's the citizens of the least European countries who most need exposure to Europe, its ways and values. The more they see of the free world, the more they are likely to want similar rules at home. Turks who can go freely to Europe and back may soon be unwilling to tolerate Erdogan's authoritarianism, and his illiberal laws may be struck down. Erecting barriers for them, on the contrary, alienates them and makes Europeans look surly and unwelcoming. 

The refugee deal with Turkey, which has already forced European bureaucrats to move faster than intended on vise liberalization, should prompt the EU to abandon visa liberalization as a political tool and only maintain the visa requirement for countries whose citizens present a serious risk of overstaying, such as Afghanistan or Eritrea. Everybody else should be free to visit, Turks included. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net