Turkey and the EU-Perspectives of the EU accession talks

Selim Kuneralp 23.03.2011

“Turkey and the EU-Perspectives of the EU accession talks”

I should like to thank the European Peoples’ Party for the kind invitation to speak today. Your party has by far the biggest group in the European Parliament. It is from your group that the rapporteur on Turkey has been chosen. Many of your members take an active interest in relations between Turkey and the EU and I have been in regular contact with them since I arrived in Brussels a little more than a year ago. I have always appreciated the willingness of your members to conduct dialogue with me and the open approach that they have adopted in our discussions. It is therefore a valuable opportunity for me to be able to exchange views with members of your party, collectively.

You have asked me to speak about the perspectives of the EU accession talks. Before addressing the future, it might be appropriate to spend a few minutes on the past.

The first point to make is that Turkey has followed since at least the end of World War II a policy of integration with the West. This policy has been dictated by geostrategic reality but also by the fact that Turkey shares the same values as the West. That is why we were a founding member of the Council of Europe which as you all know is an institution that devotes itself to fostering human rights and individual freedoms. That is also why we applied to join the EEC on 31 July 1959, more than half a century ago, at the time when at least 20 out of the 27 present members of the EU had either turned their back on the Community or were prevented by the political division of Europe from joining it. As a loyal member of NATO, we have played throughout the period of the cold war an important role in helping to preserve peace on the European continent.

I will spare you the ups-and-downs of our relationship with the European Union. What is important is that our Association Agreement signed with the Community in 1963 foresaw eventual membership of the Community as its eventual objective. This objective was expected to be reached after a suitable period of preparation intended to permit the serious economic gap that existed at that time between Turkey and the Community to be bridged. It should also be recalled that when this Agreement was signed, France was ruled by General de Gaulle and Germany by Konrad Adenauer, two of the leading figures of the EPP movement.

The instrument for arriving at accession, as foreseen in the Association Agreement was a Customs Union which was designed to integrate the Turkish economy with that of the Community. It was expected that the gradual implementation of a customs union between Turkey and the Community would help the two economies converge and would lead also to alignment of Turkish legislation and practice on that of the Community in a way that would help the process of accession.

That is exactly what has happened. At the end of 1995, as foreseen by our Association Agreements, the Customs Union that covers industrial and processed agricultural products was completed. Trade barriers on these products were eliminated. More importantly perhaps from the perspective of investors, alignment on EU legislation was achieved in all sorts of relevant areas such as standards, intellectual property rights etc.

However, the Customs Union was not intended to be an end in itself. As I said earlier, it was more like a stepping stone towards membership. That is why soon after it was completed, Turkey started pressing for full membership. In 1999, it was given candidate status and after it fulfilled the Copenhagen political criteria, accession negotiations started. The whole of the EU committed itself then to a process of negotiations whose “common objective is accession”, to quote from the Negotiating Framework adopted by all the members of the EU back in 2005.

Since 2005, we have opened 13 out of 34 chapters but only managed to close one. Paradoxically, things started to go wrong soon after the decision was taken to start the negotiations.

The first thing that happened was that the Union admitted the island of Cyprus to the EU. As you know, the island has been divided since 1963. I will not go into the history of this unfortunate island because that is not within our agenda today. However, Turkey -and indeed some members states of the Union- were of the opinion that the island should not be admitted into the EU until the Cyprus problem had been solved. Unfortunately, this view did not prevail and the decision to admit Cyprus was taken before a referendum on a reunification plan prepared by the then Secretary-General of the United Nations, Mr. Kofi Annan was organised. The Turkish Cypriots voted by a 2/3 majority in favour of the plan that had been endorsed by the whole international community but the Greek Cypriots rejected it by a ¾ majority. The paradox was that the Greek Cypriots were given the benefit of membership of the EU as sole representatives of the island and the Turkish Cypriots were kept out and isolated from the Union.

Since then the Greek Cypriots have slowed down progress in Turkey’s accession negotiations in the mistaken belief that they could obtain a solution to the problem by pressuring Turkey into accepting unfavourable terms for the Turkish Cypriots. This disregards completely the fact that the negotiations on the future of the island are driven by the Cypriots themselves and that no arrangement that would be unacceptable to the Turkish Cypriots would ever be approved by Turkey.

We have now come to a situation where the opening of negotiations on some 14 chapters is blocked on account of the Cyprus problem. Negotiations on chapters that have already been opened cannot be closed, even provisionally as would normally be the case where it not for the Cyprus problem. Five chapters are also blocked by France which argues that despite all existing commitments it has not made up its mind finally on whether Turkey should accede or not and that negotiations on those five chapters (agriculture, monetary union, budget, institutions and regional development) which it argues are only relevant for countries destined to join the EU should not even start.

Unfortunately, France is not the only country that has hesitations with respect to further enlargement of the Union. As you all know, the economic crisis that has been besetting the continent and indeed the whole world has been made further enlargement unpopular, for all the wrong reasons. The widely-held perception that earlier enlargements have been mishandled is also a complicating factor that makes further enlargement even more unpopular.

As a result, accession negotiations have essentially stopped without a conscious decision having been taken to that effect. What is regrettable is that even those member states that are warm supporters of Turkey’s accession are unable to do much about this situation.

This situation is extremely frustrating for Turkey and its people. Like every other nation in the world, the Turkish people are proud and take offence easily. When told by some in the EU that they have no perspective of acceding to the EU but that they should satisfy themselves with some undefined “privileged partnership”, their reaction is one of irritation, even of anger. Nevertheless, a majority still supports Turkey’s accession to the EU, though the number of people who actually believe that Turkey’s accession will take place is much smaller. Incidentally, the situation in EU countries is the exact opposite. There you only have a minority of people who support Turkey’s accession, but the majority believes that it will happen anyway.

This is clearly not a healthy and pleasant situation. Meanwhile, the Turkish authorities continue to work hard on trying to meet the opening benchmarks for the few remaining chapters that are not affected by political blockages. We will try to reach agreement with the Commission on the benchmarks for the Competition Chapter which is one of the most difficult ones for any candidate country. By way of example, I can draw your attention to the fact that the last chapter that Croatia was able to open is the Competition chapter which in all likelihood will also be the last that it will be able to close.

If the existing situation does not appear tenable and Turkey has no wish to turn its back on Europe, what is then likely to happen? My answer is simple. Having spent a large part of my professional life, working on EU-Turkey relations, I have become an inveterate optimist and have found that in this relationship optimism is always rewarded if only in the long-run.

So in my opinion, what is likely to happen is that those members of the EU who have misgivings with respect to Turkey’s accession will reconsider their position as they did some 12 years ago in similar circumstances. This may require changes of government in some countries. The beauty of democracy is that governments do come and go as a result of elections. The fact is that those member states that have had their doubts about Turkey’s accession will realise that it is in the interest of the EU and its peoples to admit a rapidly growing economy with a dynamic population that acts as a pole of stability in an increasingly uncertain part of the world. They will then focus on helping to find a solution to the Cyprus problem so that the blockage that it constitutes can be lifted. Thereafter, the path will be cleared for the accession negotiations to proceed smoothly and reach a satisfactory conclusion within the not-too-distant future.

That is my scenario. There are others, all equally nightmarish. However, I have no doubt that in the end commonsense and the common interest will prevail and that the right decisions will be taken. This will probably require some time but we are a patient people and have been waiting for a long time. We will not wait forever, but we will not lose patience for a few more years yet. Meanwhile, I hope that the EPP Group will play its part in helping to move us away from the quagmire in which we find ourselves. There was a time when your party was the warmest supporter of Turkey in the European Parliament, essentially because it was aware of the strategic value of Turkey for the European Community at the time of the Cold War. This position has now changed and the EPP takes a much more sceptical view of Turkey’s accession than other parties in the Parliament. However, I continue to believe that your group will realise that the line it takes at the moment is wrong and that it will review it in the not too distant future for the benefit of all concerned, including the European Union and its peoples. I also believe that the increased uncertainty which is affecting our neighbourhood will focus minds and that the role of Turkey as a pole of stability in its region will be better understood than has been the case recently.