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Olli Rehn

EU Commissioner for Enlargement

Time to move ahead with reforms

The Bosphorus Conference
Istanbul, 5 October 2007

Your Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen, dear friends,

Thank you for this opportunity to exchange views on recent developments in Turkey and our future relationship. This series of Bosphorus conferences provides a valuable forum for discussing the biggest challenges facing us. I commend the Centre for European Reform, TESEV and the British Council for collaborating to bring together such a distinguished group.

Turkey deserves praise for overcoming a political crisis this year, and strengthening its democratic institutions as a result. The government earned an impressive endorsement of its reform agenda from the voters. Moreover, the new parliament is more representative of Turkey’s political diversity. In short, Turkey demonstrated its stability and political maturation.

The challenge now is to keep this momentum going. The government has an excellent opportunity to give renewed impetus to the reform process. This would also open the way for faster progress in the accession negotiations.

It is right that Prime Minister Erdogan has set the accession process as one of his government's top priorities. We need to communicate the fact that Turkey is not undertaking the reforms just for the sake of joining the Union. Rather, preparing for future membership means enhancing prosperity, strengthening citizens’ rights, and alleviating global and regional tensions today. That means evident benefits for Turkish citizens in the short term, not just the advantages of becoming EU citizens in the future.

The constitutional reform presents many opportunities for strengthening fundamental freedoms, cultural rights and the independence of the judiciary. The new constitution should firmly anchor Turkey’s democratic institutions, ensure full civilian control of the military, and ground fundamental freedoms and rights in a strong legal framework.

The process of constitutional reform has just started and key aspects still need to be discussed, involving many segments of Turkish society. A transparent and inclusive process is vital to pre-empt criticism and guarantee the constitution broad support in society.

However, some issues cannot wait for the end of this process, particularly moves on freedom of expression and freedom of religion. Early progress in these areas would significantly change Turkey's image in the rest of the world. Now the time has come to move from words to deeds in creating a more open society.

On our side, the EU continues to honour its commitments. Negotiations and co-operation are continuing. The screening exercise is moving ahead as planned. We expect delivery of the remaining screening reports under the Portuguese Presidency. We have opened four negotiating chapters and we expect to open two additional chapters by the end of the year, demonstrating that the process is continuing.

However, speaking frankly, I am concerned about the atmosphere in which we are working at present. The impact of the debate in the EU about Turkey’s membership on the expectations of Turkish people is clearly visible in ‘Transatlantic Trends 2007’, the poll produced by the German Marshall Fund last month. The poll found a 14 percentage point drop over the past year in the number of Turkish citizens viewing EU membership as a good thing, down to 40 per cent support.

Even more worryingly, Turkish respondents are more pessimistic than EU citizens about whether Turkey will eventually join the EU – 56 per cent of Europeans think Turkey is likely to join, but only a quarter of Turks believe that their country will become a member. I invite them to look at how the EU acts in reality.

There is a remarkable consistency and continuity in the unanimous decisions taken by EU leaders, in starting and continuing accession negotiations with Turkey.

I am among the 56 per cent of Europeans who believe Turkey will join the European Union, because I think time is on Turkey’s side. As the EU thinks about its own future and considers new policies to meet new challenges – such as energy security, climate change, an ageing population and cross-border crime – Turkey will figure again and again not as a problem but rather a vital part of the solution to European problems.

Turkey has many valuable assets for the EU, such as a dynamic young workforce, and its strategic position on energy supply routes. We not only want to work with Turkey, but we need to do so, if we are to tackle effectively major common problems like people-trafficking and the stability of the wider Middle East. The EU needs to integrate a stable, prosperous, and democratic Turkey to further our interests in stabilising Iraq, supporting the Middle East Peace Process, rebuilding confidence-based relations with Iran and developing common links with the Black Sea region.

But these strategic arguments are not featuring often enough in the public debate in the EU. In the discussions tomorrow, we should consider seriously how to ensure that this positive message gets through: both to mainstream Turkey in the EU’s debates about future challenges, and to explain to the Turkish people why time is on their side.

If we are to complete our political bridge between the EU and Turkey, we need to stand up time and again for our convictions about the long-term interests of everyone in continuing this accession process. I rely on all of you to help explain it better. We also need to engage civil society more deeply on both sides, to keep up the momentum.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I believe that Turkey and the European Union can build together a bridge based on our common values. Let’s add a solid bridge linking our shared destiny to the monumental marvels of this wonderful city.

Thank you.

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