EU-Turkey fundamentals: How strong are they?

During a welcome speech for Turkish visitors over lunch in Berlin last week, the German government’s commissioner for human rights policy and humanitarian aid at the Federal Foreign Office, Markus Loening, kindly mentioned how important it is for Turkey to begin talks on Chapter 23 of negotiations on Turkey’s EU membership, which deals with “Judiciary and Fundamental Rights.” He said it will help ensure that the rule of law in Turkey — a candidate for European Union accession — is in line with the EU’s values. The commissioner also openly expressed his displeasure at the Greek Cypriots’ attempts to block the opening of this chapter.

Loening’s speech was rather ironic given the fact that that the Turkish delegation came to Germany to talk to federal and state legislators about the work of commissions that are probing previously unsolved neo-Nazi murders that claimed the lives of 10 people, eight of them ethnic Turks. Yet the commissioner was talking about the fundamental human rights in Turkey rather than devoting his short introductory speech to the discussion of the rising xenophobia, racism, extremism and Islamophobia in his own country. It was his prerogative of course, and he may even claim that he was limited due to the government mandate, which leaves criticism of home state affairs to the ombudsperson. It just did not seem logical to me to waste that informal occasion, which should have exclusively been used for our mutual concern over the shocking serial murders that occurred between 2000-2007, and why the government allegedly had no idea who the real perpetrators were until November of last year.

But Loening was right on one point: The EU needs to open Chapter 23 to have an impact on the judicial and fundamental rights reforms that have been taking place in Turkey since the major constitutional overhaul after the Sept. 2010 public referendum. He was right in expressing his frustration towards Greek Cypriots who blocked that chapter among others. What he did not know at the time was that the EU had even failed Turkey in releasing the screening report on Chapter 23 in addition to half a dozen other ones.

Turkey has covered a lot of ground since the screening report, which focused on Turkey’s shortcomings on the fundamental rights front, was completed in 2005 by the EU Commission, in fact many points in the report are no longer relevant. The EU diplomats first claimed the report was lost in the maze of cumbersome bureaucracy in Brussels or so it seems, since they later blamed the EU Council for not communicating their approval of the report. In plain words, the Greek Cypriots did not communicate their approval of the screening report for publication to the commission. Genuinely surprised Loening said to me he simply did not know about it.

Because of this and other strange hiccups in Turkey’s long and turbulent voyage to full membership in the EU, I am not that optimistic on the so called “positive agenda” policy that will supposedly bring Turkey and the EU into alignment on technical aspects of eight chapters. So far only 13 chapters have been opened to negotiations but the talks in 17 of the remaining 20 were blocked by some member states including Greek Cypriots and France. Should we be hopeful that France may drop its veto on the opening of five chapters after incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy lost the race for a new term as president to socialist contender François Hollande? With Sarkozy’s excuses removed, will German Chancellor Angela Merkel throw Austria into the opposition mix as front cover now so that blame goes to the Austrians but not the Germans? Only time will tell.

EU Commissioner for Enlargement Stefan Füle will be in Ankara on May 17 to officially inaugurate eight working groups for a new “positive agenda” policy, but so many questions linger in the horizon on the sustainability of this process unless there is something concrete that we can present to the public during this process. Not a single chapter was opened in the past two years. Denmark, the current holder of the presidency, gave up on opening a new one already and nobody expects to open a chapter in the second half of the year when the Greek Cypriots assume the rotating presidency on July 1. Nothing is moving on the visa facilitation or waiver agreement either. Lingering problems on the customs union agreement Turkey has been raising for some time have fallen on deaf ears in Brussels.

The EU’s top envoy in Ankara, Ambassador Jean-Maurice Ripert, strikes me as a diplomat who talks in an uncharacteristically blunt yet gentle way. He seems to be genuinely enthusiastic that the new positive agenda will work for the promotion of better EU-Turkey ties. But he is also frank when it comes to the difficulties in the member states. I talked to him over lunch on April 25 during which he listed a number of things that have been going well with EU-Turkey relations. Though he made it clear that the positive agenda is there to complement, not replace, the accession process, Ripert noted that the positive agenda will bring Turkey and the EU closer in a number of areas. The agenda covers eight policy areas in fundamental human rights, judicial reforms, constitutional work, energy, trade, counterterrorism, visa and immigration as well as foreign policy issues. He, time and time again praised the Justice Ministry for having worked with the delegation very closely in formulating a number of reforms; some of them are already being discussed in the Parliament’s Justice Commission and others are in the pipeline. My sources at the ministry have also confirmed this close collaboration.

Ripert believes that the fundamentals of the EU-Turkey relationship are still strong and much better than the one portrayed in the media. He said that the trade volume between the two exceeded 120 billion euros last year, accounting for almost 50 percent of Turkey’s foreign trade. Despite the crisis in the eurozone, the share of foreign direct investment (FDI) from the EU’s 27 member countries in Turkey has exceeded 80 percent of the total FDI figure Turkey received in 2011. Stressing that the largest assistance funds were earmarked for Turkey as part of the Instrument for Pre-Accession Assistance [IPA], the EU envoy said there was more than six billion euros given to Turkey between 2004 and 2013. Just for 2012 alone, 850 million euros were allocated to Turkey, he added. He forgot to mention however that in terms of per capita assistance, Turkey gets the lowest amount of funding from the EU among candidates.

One thing Ripert mentioned caught my attention. He recalled that the Ministry for European Union Affairs’ National Agency is planning to include 55,000 Turkish citizens for its Lifelong Learning and Youth in Action programs, which mainly targets young people, in 2012, a major increase compared to past years. The agency receives funds from the Turkish government (40 percent) and EU (60 percent). This helps keep spirit up among the youth in Turkey for the positive perception of the EU, which is very important for the sustainability of dialogue between the EU and Turkey. He also said the traffic between Ankara and Brussels is hectic as usual and did not lose any steam with ministers, commissioners, MPs and director generals making trips on both ends.

On the customs union front, the EU ambassador agrees that there are some problems that need to be tackled and said they are doing their best under the law to involve Turkey very closely to free trade agreements (FTA) the EU negotiates with third parties. According to the customs union agreement, Turkey needs to negotiate a separate FTA treaty with any country the EU has already concluded an FTA with, putting the redundant work on the shoulders of the Turkish government. He said that an independent study was launched to determine the advantages and drawbacks of the customs union and they will be talking with Turkish counterparts on how to resolve these problems without running afoul with the World Trade Organization (WTO) rules once the study was completed.

The EU ambassador was frank on the visa-free regime for Turkey and admitted that there is resistance from some member states on waiving the visa requirements for Turkish citizens. He underlined that the EU Council needs to empower the European Commission with a new mandate to negotiate a visa-free agreement with Turkey. He said some member states linked the visa facilitation talks to signing a “readmission treaty” with Turkey. “We have a text ready, and agreed upon, for the readmission treaty since Feb. 2011. We just need initials from both sides,” he said. In the meantime, the commission is working on visa facilitation procedures for Turkish citizens like asking for less paperwork, issuing long term multi-entry visas and establishing common visa centers. But some member states still fail to do their part to make these things happen, he lamented. I think the ambassador is right on the point that fundamentals for EU-Turkey relations are still strong. But I am afraid if this house being built remains unfinished for much longer, it will invite mold and decay, thereby corrupting the very fundamentals of the foundation as well.

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