By Maximilian Popp
If her daughter were here, her mother would show her the New Palace in Stuttgart, the mountains and the university.
"My daughter would love Germany," says Eylem Huber. The 45-year-old childcare worker is sitting in a Turkish restaurant in Stuttgart with her husband and some friends. They are celebrating the Feast of the Sacrifice, the most important religious holiday in Islam, with a meal of lamb, kebabs and stuffed grape leaves. Huber says that she misses her daughter more than ever on holidays. "What kind of a government prohibits a girl from seeing her mother?" she asks.
Eylem and Jörg Huber met five years ago in Mersin, a city in southern Turkey. They married a short time later and moved to Stuttgart. Eylem's daughter from her first marriage, Leyla, stayed in Mersin to finish school. The Hubers thought that she would be able to visit the family in Germany on a regular basis. But in 2007, when Leyla was 14, the German Embassy in Ankara denied her a visa.
The Hubers sued the German government on behalf of their daughter, initially in the Berlin administrative court and later before the administrative appeals tribunal of Berlin-Brandenburg. The judges on the appeals court decided to bring the case before the European Court of Justice (ECJ). This week the judges at the ECJ in Luxembourg will deliberate on Leyla's petition to be allowed to travel to Germany, and their decision could very well eliminate the visa requirement for all Turkish citizens.
A 'Crime Against Humanity'
Berlin and Ankara have been arguing over the issue for years. While Germans can spend up to three months in Turkey without a visa, Turks must obtain a visa to visit Germany. They are also required to pay a security deposit of several hundred euros. Turkish tourists report waiting times of several weeks or even months, and they say that their petitions are sometimes arbitrarily rejected. Businesspeople also complain about losing business as a result of the delays.
Last week, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan voiced his renewed criticism of the visa policies of the European Union countries before visiting German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin. And Turkey's Economy Minister Zafer Çaglayan has even characterized the practice as a "crime against humanity."
The German government justifies the rules, arguing that they protect against "uncontrolled immigration." Hans-Peter Uhl, the domestic policy spokesman for Merkel's conservative parliamentary group, notes that the number of Serbian and Macedonian immigrants has increased since the introduction of visa exemptions. He warns against a "tide of Turkish refugees from poverty, human trafficking gangs and asylum applicants." But is this a likely scenario?
The Turkish economy has grown rapidly in recent years, with more Turks now leaving Germany than trying to move into the country. Relaxing the visa policy would actually attract well-educated Turks to Germany, says Green Party Co-Chairman Cem Özdemir, who alleges that students and businesspeople have been deterred by the bureaucratic red tape. "The German economy and tourism would benefit from a visa exemption," he says.
Ignoring Past Agreements
Some legal experts argue that the current rules must inevitably be changed because they violate European law. In 1963, the European Union and Turkey signed an "association agreement" that was intended to promote trade and the freedom to travel. Ten years later, the two parties signed a supplementary protocol designed to liberalize visa policy. Under the new rule, tourists and businesspeople from Turkey could spend up to three months in Germany without requiring an entry permit.
The general visa requirement was only introduced in 1980 after Germany saw a sharp rise in unemployment, and other EU countries followed suit. "Since then, the EU has ignored valid agreements," says Rolf Gutmann, an attorney in Stuttgart. According to Gutmann, the supplementary protocol contains a "standstill clause," which protects both parties from losing any rights they have already obtained.
In 2009, an attorney representing a Turkish truck driver, Mehmet Soysal, appeared before the ECJ. Soysal had sued the German government after he was denied an entry visa. Citing the association agreement, the Luxembourg judges ruled in favor of the truck driver.
The Soysal ruling attracted attention throughout Europe, and in a 2011 report, the research service for the German parliament, the Bundestag, concluded that the visa requirement for Turks was illegal. But an amendment bill submitted by the Green Party failed in the Bundestag after being voted down by Merkel's center-right coalition of conservative Christian Democrats and the pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP). It argued, like the governments of other EU countries and the European Commission, that the Soysal ruling applied only to a small group of "active" service providers like truck drivers and mechanics.
The visa exemption, its opponents argued, did not apply to the larger group of people who merely use services, such as tourists, family members and businesspeople. That could soon change, though, thanks to a girl from Mersin, Turkey, and 15 judges in Luxembourg. "If the ECJ remains true to its principles," says attorney Gutmann, "the visa requirement will soon be history."
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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