I was in Brussels last week to follow an intergovernmental conference between the European Union and Turkey which marked the opening of the 13th chapter, on food safety, veterinary and phytosanitary policy. The Turkish delegation was led by Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu and included Egemen Bağış, a state minister and Turkey’s chief EU negotiator, and Agriculture Minister Mehdi Eker.
To the credit of Spain, which held the rotating EU presidency, Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos pushed really hard to get this done before his term expired on July 1. He said had they not announced the possibility of opening four chapters at the outset, it would have been difficult to even open one today. He also said he was working for the future of all Europeans and that this includes Turks, as well.
EU Commission officials and member countries were not happy that the regular time of eight weeks to examine the progress made by Turkey on meeting benchmarks was squeezed into a little over 10 days. Yet this did not prevent both France and Greece from showering the commission with a number of questions on this chapter, seeking further information and clarification from Turkey on the impact of recently passed food safety legislation.
Greece brought up eight questions on whether Turkey had fulfilled benchmark criteria to open the chapter while France asked 16, putting it on top of the list. Denmark raised a couple of issues, while the rest did not even bother to ask any questions after seeing the commission’s comprehensive report on the progress Turkey has made. This was another indication of how French President Nicolas Sarkozy is adamant about not seeing Turkey in the union out of a fear that France will lose considerable power and influence to Turkey, which is rising fast with its dynamic economy, young population and sizable political clout.
France uses each and every venue to slow down Turkish progress in EU accession at the expense of hurting its own national interests in the medium and long run. I believe it would be wiser for France to work with Turkey rather than against it. A France supported by Turkey would boost its influence in the region from the Balkans to the Caucasus. We have already seen signs that Germany has started questioning its policy vis-a-vis Turkey and is slowly positioning itself to act more in line with Turkey’s projected goals within and beyond the EU. Unless Paris realizes that it will get the losing end of the deal, it will be left out in the cold while Germany, with its 3 million Turks, gets closer to Turkey.
It does not really matter at this point whether Turkey will be a member of the economically distressed and politically divided EU. However, we should not forget that the process of aligning Turkey with EU standards is already benefitting Turkey immensely. This is why Bağış has repeatedly said that Turkey has focused on the process itself and not on the end result. Seeing senior bureaucrats from the Secretariat General for EU Affairs working in tandem with officials from the Ministry of Agriculture for the harmonization of food safety regulations to meet benchmarks for the opening of the relevant chapter convinced me that the EU process has actually already accomplished one thing: harmonizing legislation, regulations, structures and, more importantly, the mindset of people among different ministries.
In the past, we had always complained about how our bureaucracy was locked in a turf war and that it does not talk to itself or work together in resolving issues that may fall within the jurisdiction of many ministries. Now officials from various ministries and agencies have come together to examine policies and structures in different areas under the stewardship of the Secretariat General for EU Affairs. Hence Turkey is able to address many deficiencies in governance and bring the country in line with higher standards and strict regulations that will first benefit Turkish citizens. We have no complaints about the process also boosting the competitiveness of our businesses.
In a dinner celebrating the opening of the chapter on food safety in Brussels last Wednesday which senior delegations from both the Ministry of Agriculture and the Secretariat General for EU Affairs attended, Secretary General Ambassador Volkan Bozkır made a joke. He said: “Our friendship with the people from the Ministry of Agriculture is now over that we had successfully opened the chapter on food safety. Our new dear friends will be people from the Treasury, which will be working with the Secretariat General for EU Affairs on satisfying benchmarks for the chapter on competition due to be opened during the Belgian presidency.”
Ambassador Bozkır is a tough nut when it comes to strong-arming bureaucrats to nudge them to work harder and faster for the aim of bringing regulations and structures in line with EU norms. But with a great sense of humor, he tried to make the point at the dinner that Turkey is seriously committed to the EU path and that all ministries and agencies are working together day and night to make this happen.
One example of this is the Reform Monitoring Group (RIG), which convenes once every two months with the participation of the ministers of justice, foreign affairs, internal affairs and EU affairs. They hold meetings in different provinces every time to connect with people across the country. The Secretariat General for EU Affairs also convenes working groups called Internal Coordination and Harmonization Committees (IKUK) every six weeks from all ministries and agencies to map out the strategy on how to address shortcomings. On specific chapters, it also organizes special IKUK meetings with the relevant ministries.
In a sense, we are already reaping the benefits of the EU membership process alone. But I do not think we have lost our appetite for being in the decision-making bodies of the EU by becoming a full member.