The potential opening of European Union borders to 75 million Turks under a refugee deal passed Friday could bolster Turkey's embattled leadership and allow scores of wealthy travelers to visit Europe freely.
The open border policy would let Turks enter the EU without visas, but not work in member states, starting in June. The agreement would involve members of the Schengen common visa area, meaning Turks will still need visas to enter the United Kingdom.
As a condition of the deal, Turks must travel with biometric passports, and Ankara had to agree to 72 conditions, including passing stricter visa policies to reduce migrants from other countries. The policy would largely apply to Turkey's wealthiest citizens. Only around 10 percent of Turks have passports.
“Turkish people deserve to travel within the EU without a visa, not only because we are helping out the refugee crisis but because we are a member of the customs union since the 1990s,” Egemen Bagis, a former EU affairs minister, told the Financial Times this week. “It is unacceptable that when our goods can travel freely within the EU, the owners and producers and consumers of the same goods cannot.”
Ayhan Zeytinoğlu, a member of the board of directors of the Turkish American Chamber of Commerce, said Turkey will initially struggle to meet the conditions required under the agreement, but ultimately the visa change will improve relations between Europe and Turkey.
"It is like a ban being lifted," he told local media this week. "In all public opinion polls that we conduct, we see that the visa issue affects people’s views. Our people have very bad feelings as far as the current visa regime is concerned. It is symbolic. It will be significant for the government to be able to say it was able to lift the visas and it will have a big political importance."
Zeytinoğlu said Europeans, particularly in countries that have seen growing anti-immigrant protests in recent months, don't need to worry about Turks invading the Schengen zone, despite growing clashes between the government and ethinic groups that have led to fatal bombings and violent protests throughout Turkey in recent months.
He pointed out that "78 million people are not going to go to Europe just one night. Not everyone is even a passport holder in Turkey." Zeytinoğlu added: "I don’t think that those who do not have passports will suddenly say, 'I’ll get a passport and go to Europe.'"
In the deal struck between Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutogl and the European Union's 28 member states Friday, Ankara will take back all migrants and refugees, including those fleeing Syria's brutal five-year civil war, who have crossed to Greece illegally from Turkey. Migrants who arrive in Greece starting on Sunday could be sent back once they have been registered. The resettlements would begin on April 4. The EU would send $6 billion to Turkey to help support the refugees.
European leaders have acknowledged the legality of the deal will likely be challenged.
"There are big legal challenges that we must now overcome," German Chancellor Angela Merkel said. "But I think we've reached an agreement that has an irreversible momentum."
Turkey is part of more than 100 nations where citizens are required to obtain visas to travel to the European Union, including Switzerland, India, South Africa, Syria, Ukraine and Egypt. Many elites in Turkey have long complained that the visa requirement that requires all travelers to declare their assets and prove their willingness to return to their homeland is too stringent.
"The abolition of Schengen visas would be a huge win for Turkey’s ruling elites. Removing the humiliating process of visa applications is certain to raise the popularity of the ruling Justice and Development party (AKP). Visa-free travel is the cornerstone of the deal, which will survive or die depending on whether the EU delivers," the Financial Times wrote this week.
Some European Union officials had argued that Turkey's demands were unreasonable. "An agreement with Turkey cannot be a blank check," said Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel.
But ultimately the deal that requires Turkey to crack down on human smugglers and halt the flow of refugees coming into Europe through Greece was to good to pass up. About 2,000 people cross daily from Turkey to Greece.
“To avoid that refugees arrive in Greece, we have to cooperate with Turkey,” French President Francois Hollande told reporters in Brussels this week.