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Olli Rehn

Member of the European Commission, responsible for Enlargement

Turkey's accession process to the EU

Lecture at Helsinki University
Helsinki, 27 November 2006

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am glad to address such a key contemporary challenge as Turkey’s EU accession process here at my alma mater, the University of Helsinki. To say that you have chosen the right date to discuss topical current affairs of EU-Turkey relations might qualify as the understatement of the week.

The seminar series on Turkey and Europe, organised jointly by the European Studies Centre of the University of Helsinki and the Finnish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, is an excellent initiative to tackle this formidable endeavour on the intellectual front. We need more of these.

Some years ago, Turkey rushed into the public debate in Europe when the EU began considering whether to begin accession negotiations with Turkey or not. The effect on public perception was similar to the landing of a giant flying saucer from outer space. Many commentators reacted as if Turkey was an alien completely unknown to Europe.

Yet in fact the EU’s relations with Turkey are almost as old as the creation of the European Community itself. As early as 1959, the EU began negotiations with Turkey on an Association Agreement, which became the first ever contractual arrangement with a third country, signed in November 1963 in Ankara – and hence called the "Ankara Agreement". The preamble and article 28 of this agreement clearly mention the prospect of Turkey eventually becoming a member of the European Community.

Since 1963, our relations have steadily developed, through more than 30 legal acts and agreements to further strengthen our bilateral links, most of them under the Ankara Agreement. Among the most significant is the establishment of the Customs Union in 1995, which has facilitated a fivefold increase in our bilateral trade.

In 1999, the EU Heads of State and governments decided here in Helsinki, under the Finnish Presidency, to grant Turkey the status of a candidate country – I quote – "destined to join the Union on the basis of the same criteria as applied to the other candidate States".

Finally, on 3 October 2005, the EU and Turkey agreed on the terms of the accession negotiations, which started officially the very same day. We also agreed that the objective of this process is accession.

To cut a long story short, Turkey has been part of the history of European integration for the past half century. Since 1949, Turkey has been a member of the Council of Europe, the first pan-European organisation created after World War II and the watchdog of democracy and human rights on our continent. Moreover, Turkey has actively defended Europe’s South-Eastern flank as a NATO member since 1952. Having a direct border with the Soviet Union, Turkey was the only European NATO ally that stood face-to-face with the Red Army and the Soviet Black Sea fleet.

I could add several other examples of recent and past history demonstrating the European orientation and the engagement of this country with the Union. Against such background, the endless controversies on the precise geographical location of Turkey, and whether the Bosphorus should be seen as a border of Europe, are frankly of little weight. There is no doubt that Turkey is part of Europe and has been part of our European political project from the beginning.

I am concerned, however, about the gap between overall public perception of this relationship and political decision-making about it. But this gap is not only a matter of “enlargement fatigue” or “the enlargement blues”. The debate about Turkey is also part of Europe having the blues about globalisation, the welfare state and unemployment. In other words, it stems rather from the global crisis of governance in our developed societies. I trust the distinguished researchers of the Helsinki University will actively study this matter, and I look forward to the findings of their research. But meanwhile, I will keep underlining Turkey's role and significance, which is a long-standing reality in Europe.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

What makes Turkey so important that we have kept reiterating its EU prospect over the decades? Is it because we want to please a country which keeps asking to join? Is it because we can't forget the delights of Istanbul and the romantic banks of the Bosphorus?

Not quite. Turkey remains a key country for Europe, as it was during the Cold War. But the tearing down of the Iron Curtain did not reduce Turkey’s strategic value. On the contrary, Turkey became more important to us. Look at the news on TV – be it about Iran, Iraq, the Middle East, the energy crisis or the dialogue with the Muslim world, news reports constantly demonstrate that we need Turkey with us, as an anchor of stability in the most unstable and dangerous region, and as a benchmark of democracy for the wider Middle East. The high stakes of the Cold War have been replaced by other, more complex challenges, in which Turkey remains a vital strategic partner in Europe.

The accession process, which started on 3 October last year, is therefore an opportunity that we should not waste. It is an opportunity to demonstrate that Islam, the second biggest religion on our continent, is compatible with Europe and its values; that is, with democracy, human rights and modernity. As a secular republic with a predominant Muslim population, a staunchly democratic Turkey integrated into the EU would be a powerful example against fundamentalist claims of an essential incompatibility between democracy and Islam.

The EU’s Treaties have proved to be the most effective peace treaties between our nations. Similarly, the accession of Turkey could pave the way for lasting peace between Europe and Islam. The "Alliance of Civilisations" initiative, launched by the Spanish and Turkish Prime Ministers Zapatero and Erdogan, stems from the same consideration.

Turkey is also a major player in the crisis – or crises – of the wider Middle East. In Iraq, Turkey took part in efforts to restore the stability of political institutions. Its participation in the UNIFIL force in Lebanon shows that it intends to play a constructive role on this front as well.

Turkey is also a contributor to our European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP), having participated in the EU-led police missions in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, and in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Since December 2004, Turkey has also contributed to the EUFOR-ALTHEA mission in Bosnia-Herzegovina, which is the first military operation ever under EU auspices. And Turkey participates in the EU-NATO strategic cooperation based on the "Berlin Plus" agreement.

Economic interdependence is another key force driving EU-Turkey relations. The EU is by far Turkey's most important trading partner, accounting for 50% of Turkey's trade volume. The EU’s exports to Turkey have grown by almost 20% a year since 2001. Turkey’s exports to the EU have also grown, at an annual rate of around 13%. Yet the EU had a considerable trade surplus of around 8.4 billion euros in 2005.

Increased trade relations mean that today tens of thousands of jobs in both the EU and Turkey depend on our relationship continuing to grow.

Our cooperation with Turkey on energy will be vital in the coming years. Turkey is turning into a major energy hub for supply to Europe from Central Asia, the Middle East and even North Africa. The completion of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline this year was a major step towards increasing security of the supply and mobilising Caspian oil reserves. A parallel pipeline is being built for Caspian gas, and several other oil and gas line projects are also planned. Turkey will also participate in the Energy Community for Southeast Europe as an observer.

This brief overview shows how much Europe needs Turkey and Turkey needs Europe. In the 1920s, Kemal Atatürk saw Turkey's future modernity, influence and prosperity as lying in Europe. This strategic vision remains a fundamental insight, as valid as ever.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Being aware of each other's appeal is a prerequisite for considering a close relationship and, later, a wedding party. But as such it is not enough to ensure a successful marriage.

The European Union is not just any loose international alliance. It is a community of nation-states which have decided to pool their sovereignty. In a large number of policy areas, acting together is more efficient, influential and successful than each acting alone.

The credibility and weight of the Union lie in the respect of common rules and disciplines, starting with the basic values of democracy, the rule of law and human rights that unite us.

Enlargement is about sharing a common political project based on common values, policies and institutions. This is precisely why the applicant countries, whatever their size, their population or their strategic relevance, must fulfil the accession conditions. For Turkey as for Croatia, there is no shortcut to accession. It is the role of the Commission to continue to assess, in a rigorous but fair manner, the progress made by the applicants towards meeting the criteria.

In the past five years, Turkey has carried out substantial reforms to meet the political criteria. They include the abolition of death penalty; the laws increasing the control of civilians on the military; the abolition of State Security Courts; the possibility of broadcasting and education in other languages than Turkish; the supremacy of international human rights conventions over domestic law, now enshrined in the constitution; the fight against torture and ill-treatment; as well as the strengthening of gender equality in the constitution and the civil code.

All these reforms led the Commission to conclude in 2004 that Turkey sufficiently fulfils the political criteria, which was a key condition for the start of accession negotiations. In addition, Turkey has steadily and successfully pursued economic reforms.

However, the pace of negotiations continues to depend on Turkey's own progress in the reforms. When it comes to fundamental rights and the rule of law, Turkey must start implementing the reforms as early as possible. Therefore, the negotiation process takes place primarily in the candidate country itself, rather than in Brussels.

So where does Turkey stand with its reforms today?

In the public debate, one may get the impression that Turkey has been backtracking. This is not the case. As shown in our latest progress report adopted on 8 November, Turkey has continued political reforms, even though their pace has slowed down during the last year.

Some important legislation was adopted in 2006, such as the law on settlements, which addresses the situation of the Roma, the law abolishing the competence of military courts to try civilians, or the law creating an ombudsman. Moreover, the Parliament adopted a law on religious foundations which we hope will address the difficulties faced by the non-Muslim communities in Turkey, such as the ownership and management of their properties.

Yet, we must see more progress on a several areas, such as women's rights, trade union rights, cultural rights and civilian control of the military.

In addition, it is high time that Turkey addresses the problems of its South-East through a comprehensive strategy which combines socio-economic development and cultural rights for the Kurdish population. Let me be very clear at this point: we fully understand the reality of the terrorist threat in Turkey. This summer, there was a terrorist attack almost every day leading to casualties in holiday resorts as well as in South-East Anatolia. We in Western Europe, who have also been badly hit by terrorism, should show more understanding and compassion towards Turkish citizens. But such a situation cannot be dealt with through a policy based on security concerns and police operations alone.

Last but not least, we need urgent progress on freedom of expression. The ambiguous wording of the Turkish Penal Code unfortunately gave too much room for interpretation by prosecutors. This led to the indictment of dozens of journalists, academics, writers and human rights activists. A ruling of the Court of Cassation last summer confirmed the conviction of a journalist, thus creating a negative jurisprudence.

However, an intense debate on this issue is going on in Turkey, including within the government. Prime Minister Erdogan has invited NGOs to propose amendments to the Turkish Penal Code, which is a positive development. We have to see which concrete results this initiative may produce, but in the end, if there is no agreement among the civil society organisations, we expect the government to take the initiative to change the notorious article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code without delay.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Then there is, of course, Cyprus. One of the conditions for the start of accession negotiations was the signature by Turkey of the Protocol extending the Association Agreement, including the EU-Turkey Customs Union, to the new EU Member States following the last enlargement of 2004. Yet Turkey has kept its ports and airports closed to the transport of goods from the Republic of Cyprus. The EU expects Turkey to ensure full, non-discriminatory implementation of the Ankara Protocol and to remove these obstacles.

The Finnish Presidency has made major diplomatic efforts to ensure that Turkey meets its obligations under the Protocol. The Commission has fully supported these efforts to unblock the current stalemate. On a parallel track, the Presidency has aimed at solving another deadlock on the Commission proposal from July 2004 which would enable direct trade between the Turkish Cypriot Community and the rest of the EU.

Unfortunately, the Presidency however had to conclude earlier today that circumstances did not permit an agreement to be reached. The Commission is now working with the Presidency to manage the continuation of Turkey’s EU accession negotiations. Our joint intention is that the General Affairs and External Relations Council on 11 December should decide on the matter. The Commission will make relevant recommendations ahead of that Council meeting.

The efforts of the Finnish Presidency were by far not in vain, however. There is an old Finnish saying: “Salmon is such a noble fish that it is worth fishing even if you don’t finally catch one.”

Seldom is this saying more valid than today. The Finnish formula was realistic and aimed at providing a genuine win-win situation to the parties concerned. Yet it did not fly in the end. I have worked on the Cyprus issue now with five consecutive Presidencies, since 2004. In these two and half years, we have not been able to make progress either on the trade regulation or on the ports issue. One could say “Sapienti sat” – or “enough for a wise man”. The essential conclusion we must draw is that a comprehensive settlement is the best way to solve the problems.

To encourage serious movement, the December European Council should call for a resumption of the talks on a comprehensive settlement under the UN auspices. It is in the EU’s interest to see a reunification of the island and the end of a conflict on European soil that is now more than 40 years old. Such division is unacceptable within our European Union, which is founded on the principles of peace, reconciliation and human rights. Recalling these basics is all the more justified as we approach the 50th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Little more than a year ago, the European Union and Turkey agreed on the objectives, principles and rules of the accession negotiations. We agreed that the objective of the negotiations is accession, even if these negotiations are, by their very nature, an open-ended process whose outcome cannot be guaranteed.

However, if those who have agreed on this principle continuously question Turkey's vocation to join the European Union, it also calls into question the credibility of our own commitments. That in turn seriously undermines the conditions and criteria for accession which the very same European Union defined unanimously, and thus damages the motivation for reforms in Turkey.

It creates a vicious circle of reversed commitment, weakened conditionality and stalled reforms. By keeping our word and sticking to the accession perspective, we can create a virtuous circle of credible commitment, rigorous conditionality and reinforced reforms. That means a more Europe-oriented Turkey. We must, at every stage, remain both firm and fair – not just firm.

The accession process with Turkey is a long-standing project, where the journey – Turkey's reform efforts – is as important as the final destination. It will have difficult moments, and call for difficult decisions. I trust that neither Turkey nor the European Union will lose sight of the key strategic value of the whole project; that is, peace, security, democracy and prosperity in Europe, from Helsinki to Lisbon, from Lisbon to Istanbul, and beyond.

Thank you for your attention.

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