Turkey always rejected this. Ankara has consistently declared an unwavering goal of joining the EU, although with negotiations frozen for almost three years, and increasing frustration, this has been more words than actions. Only one negotiating chapter has so far been concluded; eight chapters are frozen by the EU over Turkey’s refusal to allow ships and planes from the Republic of Cyprus to enter its ports and airspace, while France blocked five chapters. EU-related reforms, which are often difficult and expensive, have been thin on the ground and in areas such as media freedom Turkey has slid backwards.
Moreover, support for the EU in Turkey dropped as the economy became increasingly vibrant. Turks have acquired a new sense of confidence in contrast to the malaise plaguing the debt-ridden EU, although when the EU economy is going badly, there is a direct impact on Turkey as the EU remains Turkey’s biggest trading partner and foreign investor.
However, there does seem to be a renewed spark of interest. While the more pragmatic policy of France’s new President Francois Hollande will certainly not magic away all problems, it may help. This was reflected earlier this week by Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Economy Ali Babacan, who was in Brussels speaking at a dinner organized by the Turkish Businessman’s Organisation (TUSKON). He was joined by European Commissioner for Enlargement Stefan Füle and by Commissioner for Economic and Monetary Affairs Olli Rehn. Rehn previously held Füle’s position and both men have something in common: they have been unwavering in their support of Turkey’s EU accession process, working proactively to maintain momentum, particularly during the last few years when the process stalled.
Babacan underlined that Ankara recognizes that the EU accession process has been important for Turkey, giving Ankara benchmarks and standards to live up to in order to improve values and freedoms. Yes, sometimes this happens slowly, sometimes Turkey gets angry and there are still many challenges to overcome. However, the positive transformation of the country -- economically, socially and politically -- over the past 10 years is undeniable. In 2004, Turkey was an aid-receiving country. In 2011, Turkey gave some $1.3 bn in development aid to more than a hundred different countries. Turkey’s transformation and experiences are also increasingly used as a model for other countries and regions. Without the EU factor, I doubt Turkey would have achieved this.
In 2011, it became clear the freeze in the talks was no longer tenable. It was affecting the broader Turkey-EU relationship, increasingly eroding trust and needed to be reversed. This is when Füle came up with the New Positive Agenda concept. The initiative was launched in Ankara on May 17 by Füle and Turkey’s Minister for EU Integration Egemen Bagis. Working groups devoted to individual chapters will be created with the goal of speeding up efforts to align Turkish policy with EU legislation. It will not replace the accession process but complement it.
The working groups will focus on visas, mobility and migration; energy; trade and the customs union; and counter-terrorism. Judicial and fundamental rights will be among the first issues to be tackled. It is hoped that the new agenda, along with the change in France, will not only bring new momentum to the process but will also help increase public support both in Turkey and the EU.
Füle also praised Turkey for beginning to move ahead with new reforms including the third judicial reform package, which he hoped would be swiftly adopted. Key reforms related to freedom of expression, media, the anti-terror law and the code of criminal procedures are also in the pipeline. While praising the constructive cooperation of the four main political parties in preparing a new constitution, he highlighted the need to move to the next stage and keep up the positive momentum. The constitution should be representative and serve the needs of all Turkish citizens. It should not be created behind closed doors but in an open and transparent way, acting as a catalyst for fundamental rights and freedoms while enforcing the rule of law.
Turkey’s efforts over the next few months will feed into the European Commission’s annual progress report published in the last quarter of the year. Yet, the coming months will be far from plain sailing, especially when the Republic of Cyprus, which Turkey does not recognize, picks up the EU’s rotating Presidency in July. This is sure to be another challenging period for Turkey-EU relations.