The start of the talks were marked by a press conference organized in Turkey's EU Ministry in Ankara, where State Minister and Turkey's Chief EU Negotiator Egemen Bağış and EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Füle made a briefing on the new dialogue process. The “positive agenda” foresees joint progress by the EU Commission and Turkey on the chapters -- policy areas in which EU candidates must open talks -- that have been blocked. Seventeen chapters have been blocked by the EU Council, either due to the Cyprus dispute or EU member country opposition. The new agenda will promote dialogue on how Turkey can make progress in these chapters without affecting their status as blocked.
Eight working groups have been formed to work on these chapters. The working groups aim to conduct examinations and deepen cooperation in certain areas including energy, visa liberalization, human rights, judicial reform, constitutional reform, trade ties, counterterrorism cooperation and foreign policy. Should the EU Commission and Turkey engage in successful negotiations over some points in these chapters, the commission would try to persuade EU Council members, who have the last say on enlargement and the opening of chapters, in favor of letting Turkey open the blocked chapters.
While they remarked positively on the prospective reawakening of Turkey-EU relations, with regard to several political obstacles to Turkish membership, Bağış and Füle underlined that the “positive agenda” process would in no way be an alternative track to Turkey’s continuing negotiation process.
“It is not to replace, but to complement and support the accession process,” said Füle, who was the originator of the idea of starting the “positive agenda” process, elaborating on the plan.
Bağış, quoting a phrase from Mevlana Celaleddin Rumi, stated that “Problems are like the night, but there will always be a morning,” anticipating that the process will be a fresh start for Turkey and the EU to regenerate their relations.
Out of 35 chapters in the process, 13 have been opened, 17 are blocked, four have not been opened yet and one is provisionally closed -- the science and research chapter. The new dialogue is intended to breathe a fresh breath into Turkey’s EU process amid recent political developments in Europe which could be seen as benefiting Turkey. The most important of these is the French presidential takeover of Socialist François Hollande from Nicolas Sarkozy, who is a staunch opponent of Turkish integration.
‘EU obscures Turkish human rights improvements’
Justice Minister Sadullah Ergin, Bağış and Füle also held their first meeting with one of the working groups related to Article 23 of the acquis communautaire (the body of EU law), the Judiciary and Fundamental Rights chapter, on Thursday.
“Turkey has fulfilled an important part of the criteria needed for the opening of Article 23,” Ergin said in a press conference held in the Justice Ministry following the meeting. The justice minister also noted that Turkey’s lengthy trial processes would be addressed and examinations to bring the Turkish judiciary to international standards would be launched within the scope of the working group.
Meanwhile, Bağış said during the conference that while most of the criticisms Turkey has drawn related to its EU process come from its inadequacies on citizen rights, the EU’s failure to examine and publicize improved Turkish credentials on this issue shows that the organization has a double standard when it comes to Turkey.
“After 88 years, Turkey’s Orthodox citizens now have a right to pray in Sümela Monastery [in Trabzon] and our Armenian citizens can pray in Akdamar Church in Van. TRT [Turkish Radio and Television] now broadcasts in Kurdish, while people even feared to speak Kurdish in public until 15 years ago,” Bağış said, enumerating Turkish achievements on the issue. Saying that EU Commissioners have praised those developments in their bilateral talks with Turkish officials, Bağış criticized EU governments for not exerting enough effort to make these advances known to their citizens.
Turkey opened accession talks with the EU in 2005 but progress has been slow due to the Cyprus dispute and opposition from some member countries, including Germany and France. Since the beginning of the negotiation process, no analytical examination on Turkey’s judiciary and fundamental rights credentials has been made by the EU, which would set out the criteria needed for the opening of the chapter related to Article 23.
Moreover, one of the most important implications on clearing the cobwebs from Turkey-EU relations is the visa liberalization issue. Legal circles in Turkey are asserting that being classified as a country whose citizens need visas to enter the EU is in contradiction to the Ankara Agreement, signed in 1963 between Turkey and the European Economic Community (EEC), which later changed its name to the EU. Turkey was defined as a country whose citizens didn’t need visas to enter the EU according to a protocol added to the Ankara Agreement of November 1970.
Defining the EU’s visa policy on Turkey as “irrational and illegal,” Bağış also anticipated that “the EU will pass the visa exam” with the help of the newly launched dialogue.
During an exclusive interview with the Anatolia news agency, the Turkish EU negotiator emphasized that Turkey’s stance is obvious and Turkish citizens will “sooner or later” win the right to travel to EU member states without visas.
The launching of EU-Turkey talks on visa liberalization is conditional on the signing of an agreement on the readmission into Turkey of illegal immigrants caught transiting through Turkey to reach EU destinations. But several EU countries are reluctant to agree to a visa-free travel program with Turkey, fearing this would spark an inflow of Turkish immigrants seeking jobs in the eurozone.