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European Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighbourhood Policy
State of EU-Turkey relations: achievements and disappointments
European Parliament, EU-Turkey Joint Parliamentary Committee
Brussels, 10 April 2014
Chairmen, Honourable Members,
First of all, I understand that Hélène Flautre is co-chairing the EU-Turkey joint parliamentary committee for the last time. Hélène, let me pay tribute to your relentless, energetic and constructive contribution to the work of this committee – and beyond that, to mutual understanding between the European Union and Turkey.
This is also my last opportunity to address this assembly. The timing could not be better for presenting my views on the state of European Union-Turkey relations. Allow me to start by making five remarks.
Up until the end of 2013, I had witnessed a renewed momentum in our relations. First, we moved forward with the opening of chapter 22 on Regional policy. This was an important step in Turkey's accession process as we finally opened a new chapter after more than three years. It is now up to Turkey to use this opportunity to design a regional policy and its structures, inspired by the European Union model. In this regard, let me recall that IPA has been supporting regional development in Turkey for many years now.
Second, there were significant developments in the area of justice and home affairs. We launched a visa liberalisation dialogue resulting in Turkish citizens being offered a clear perspective of a visa free travel to the European Union. At the same time, both sides stepped up cooperation on effectively tackling irregular migration, and signed the readmission agreement.
In order to fully capitalise on this major achievement, it is now crucial that the agreement is ratified and enters into force as soon as possible. Safeguarding the rights of migrants must be at the core of this cooperation. It is an important benchmark for progress in the process towards visa liberalisation. IPA has and will continue supporting these efforts.
Third, in the past months, we also looked more closely at our trade relations. The evaluation by the World Bank of the Customs Union - the main economic pillar of European Union-Turkey relations - provides us with a great opportunity to study its strengths and weaknesses and to advertise the substantial gains it brings for both sides. First and foremost, it gives us the chance to make best use of its huge untapped potential if we constructively put our efforts to solve existing difficulties. I truly believe this could provide a boost to our cooperation for the years to come.
Fourth, it goes without saying that the successful cooperation between the European Union and Turkey should also be pursued on energy. In this respect, together with Commissioner Oettinger, I initiated an enhanced energy cooperation with Turkey in 2012. Energy mix, market integration and development of infrastructures, renewables, energy efficiency and nuclear safety are among the issues which should remain high on our agenda.
Fifth, Turkey and the European Union are well aware of the challenges in our common neighbourhood. These challenges are best addressed when we work together and therefore both sides continue to improve the strategic dialogue and cooperation on foreign policy. Turkey also played a key role in the resumption of the Cyprus settlement talks.
Together with High Representative Ashton, we had extensive and productive discussions with Ministers Davutoğlu and Çavuşoğlu during our political dialogue in February. I am convinced that there is potential to intensify this cooperation even further.
At the same time we have witnessed developments in the accession negotiations which are a cause for concern and disappointment.
On the judiciary, the new legislation transferred significant powers over the High Council of Judges and Prosecutors to the Ministry of Justice. This development reverses a previous reform elaborated in consultation with the European Union and the Council of Europe. The changes raise serious concerns over the independence and impartiality of the judiciary and over the separation of powers in Turkey.
On top of legislative reforms, the massive transfers of police officers, judges and prosecutors constitute a risk to the proper conduct of investigations into alleged corruption. Yet, Turkey must take all the necessary measures to ensure that allegations of wrongdoing are addressed in a transparent and impartial manner.
In the area of freedom of expression, I regret that the new law on the internet gives arbitrary power to the telecommunications authority (TIB). The lack of sufficient protection or legal safeguards of the affected parties is also worrying. The recent ban on social media proves that these concerns are justified.
Let me reiterate that the right to freedom of expression includes the freedom to receive and impart information and ideas in the public interest without disproportionate interference by public authority. Any limitations should be proportionate as outlined by the European Court of Human Rights.
We will continue to monitor developments in Turkey and duly report on them in the Progress Report in the autumn.
But I believe we already need to change the way in which we cooperate as regards the accession negotiations. This is particularly important for the areas of the rule of law and fundamental rights. We need to intensify our dialogue at all phases of policy and law making on these issues which are at the very centre of the accession process. They must be treated as an absolute priority. We also need to work closely on the assessment of the existing legislation. As a candidate country committed to bring its accession process forward, Turkey must be fully aware of European Union standards and best practices.
What does it mean in concrete terms? We need to continue our cooperation under the positive agenda, in particular in the framework of the working Group on Chapter 23. In addition, regular political monitoring at technical level should complement our dialogue. We should use the potential of the bodies established under the Association Agreement: the relevant sub-committee, Association Committee and Association Council.
We should also seize the opportunity of the upcoming peer assessments to reinforce our cooperation. It is already agreed with the Turkish authorities to have a peer review on freedom of expression. This peer review could take an in-depth look at issues like the implementation of the new legislation covering the internet. In the current context, the close cooperation of the Turkish authorities in this exercise is of paramount importance. The same goes for the peer reviews on the High Council of Judges and Prosecutors and the Turkish criminal justice system. They would allow us to assess the independence, efficiency and impartiality of the judiciary.
This enhanced cooperation on the rule of law and fundamental rights would help prevent what seems most detrimental in a strategic relationship - disagreements and misunderstandings. A deeper dialogue with the Turkish side would help to ensure that laws and policies which Turkey wishes to adopt bring it closer to the EU and do not have the opposite effect.
The Commission is, and has always been, a strong promoter of Turkey's European Union integration process. What is expected from true friends is to speak true words. This brings the process forward.
As Commissioner for enlargement, I must admit that events over the past three months have cast doubt on Turkey's commitment to European values and standards. Let me express the sincere hope that the next three months will prove me wrong; that Turkey will fully re-engage in reforms which will bring your country closer to the European Union; that constructive cooperation will allow us to use the immense potential of our relations to the full.
Be assured that the Commission stands ready, as usual, to assist you in these efforts.