EU envoy to Turkey steps down after Ankara sees red over visa comments

FILE PHOTO: Hansjoerg Haber © Thierry Roge
The European Union’s ambassador to Turkey, Hansjoerg Haber, has resigned a month after saying Turkey has been lax in meeting the EU’s criteria for visa-liberalization, while playing on national stereotypes, triggering a sharp reaction from Ankara.

“The successor will be appointed swiftly. We, as the European Union, continue to work with Turkey, Turkey is a key partner; it’s a candidate country. We have re-energized our relationship,” said Maja Kocijancic, a spokesperson for the European Commission, while reiterating the EU’s pledge to galvanize the visa liberalization process for Turkey and spur accession talks in exchange for the success of the EU-Turkey migrant deal.

Hansjoerg, a German national, provoked the ire of Turkish officials last month for citing a proverbial expression “starting like a Turk and ending like a German” to illustrate the Turkish government’s lackluster approach to fulfilling the 72 requirements the EU listed as conditions for a visa-free regime for Turks wanting to enter the Schengen zone, as stipulated in the roadmap drawn up back in 2013.

“We have a proverb: ‘To start like a Turk and end like a German,’ but it has been just the opposite here. It started like a German and is being finished like a Turk,” he said when speaking at a press conference on May 13.

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The original saying alludes to the perception that Turkish people embark on new endeavors with strong enthusiasm, but lack the willpower to see them through. In contrast, Germans are stereotypically known for strict discipline and the ability to get a job done.

The comments added fuel to the heated debate over the fate of the controversial EU-Turkey migrant deal, which the EU sees as crucial for stemming the flow of refugees flooding the continent, a large number of whom travel through Turkey. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has repeatedly threatened to pull out of the agreement if visa-free access is not granted to Turkish citizens by July 1.

Commenting on the EU’s decision to replace Haber, Turkey’s EU affairs minister, Omer Celik, repeated statements made earlier by Turkish officials accusing the German diplomat of insulting the Turkish people and their president. Ankara summoned the envoy following the incident.

“The comments made by the ambassador in question violated this fundamental rule and the necessary reaction was made,” Celik told TRT television, stressing that the envoy’s work “no longer had a function or meaning” and urging diplomats to “respect national values, which include the common value of the office of the presidency.”

One of the main preconditions for visa liberalization with which Turkey is unwilling to comply is a demand that it limit its so-called anti-terror laws, which the government has previously used as a political tool to crackdown on media and intellectuals opposing its policies. Turkey insists that the laws must remain in place to protect it from “terrorists,” including Kurdish militia. 

However, despite the assertion of Germany’s Interior Minister, Thomas de Maiziere, who said that “if the conditions for the introduction of visa liberalization are not met, there will be no visa liberalization,” recently leaked UK diplomatic cables suggest Germany, a key backer of the refugee deal, may give the green light to the process anyway.

“Despite the tough public line, there are straws in the wind to suggest that in extremis the Germans would compromise further to preserve the EU-Turkey deal,” a cable from the UK’s ambassador in Berlin said, as cited by the British daily Telegraph. The document indicates that Germany may agree on a “compromise formulation” of Turkey’s terrorism law in order to keep the migrant deal intact.

Pursuant to the agreement, Turkey should take back refugees crossing into the EU from Turkey in exchange of a total of €6 billion ($6.6 billion) in financial aid and the EU’s promise to fast-track visa liberalization for Turkish citizens and accession processes allowing Turkey to join the EU.