EU-Turkey relations 'picking up pace'

With progress in the UN on the Cyprus question, as well as increased political efforts from Brussels and Ankara, Turkish EU accession is back on the horizon, writes Selim Yenel.

By Selim Yenel

14 Feb 2014

After more than two years since returning to Brussels, I am pleased to witness that Turkey-EU relations are, albeit slowly, picking up pace. As many would recall, the accession process had come to a virtual halt since 2010. No chapters could be opened due to political reasons. We entered 2013, which marked the 50th anniversary of Turkey-EU relations, on a negative note. Then a slight thaw emerged as France finally lifted its veto on one chapter. EU council president Herman Van Rompuy visited Turkey, as well as EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton last year. There was a slight pause in summer with the events taking place in Turkey. Real developments came in the autumn. November saw the opening of chapter 22 on regional policy and coordination of structural instruments. December was marked with the signing of the readmission agreement along with the launch of dialogue for a visa-free regime for Turkish citizens.

Once completed, the visa liberalisation process will bring the people in Turkey and the EU closer. The three-year transition period foreseen in the readmission agreement will give Turkey time to prepare for the implementation of its provisions related to the readmission of third country nationals. Once the agreement is implemented by Turkey, the European commission is expected to fulfil its share of commitments by initiating the legislative proposal to lift the visa obligations imposed on Turkish citizens. Turkey is determined to conclude the process successfully in the shortest time. The agreement went through the relevant committees of the Turkish parliament and has been forwarded to the general assembly for approval. On the EU side, we hope that it will be approved by the European parliament in its forthcoming plenary session before the elections.

[pullquote]The intensity of the relations picked up further momentum in 2014 with the visit of prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on 21 January[/pullquote]. Six ministers, a large group of deputies, bureaucrats and journalists accompanied the prime minister, reflecting the importance attached to the visit. It served as an opportunity for Turkish and EU leaders to evaluate the relationship, and discuss how to make further progress. In his meetings with the three presidents of the EU institutions, prime minister Erdoğan emphasised Turkey’s sincere efforts towards advancing its relations with the EU, expressed Turkey’s will to deepen relations and underscored his expectations towards a rapid progress within a schedule focused on the ultimate goal of full membership, as stated in the Ankara agreement. On the EU side, Van Rompuy, commission president José Manuel Barroso, and parliament president Martin Schulz all encouraged Turkey on its path to EU membership, and put a special emphasis on Turkey being an important EU ally on foreign and security policies.

Erdoğan announced 2014 to be the 'EU year' for Turkey. High level visits are testament to this declaration. In just one month and a half, French president François Hollande visited Turkey, president Abdullah Gül visited Italy, Erdoğan visited Germany and Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy came to Turkey. Foreign minister Ahmet Davutoğlu and EU affairs minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu were in Brussels in the beginning of February for their political dialogue meeting with high representative Ashton and enlargement commissioner Štefan Füle.

If we are to continue having more developments in our relationship we need to make them sustainable. The accession process can move ahead rapidly once the Cyprus question is resolved. More than a third of the chapters are blocked by the Greek Cypriot administration. We believe that it is high time that this question be resolved for the benefit of all. The joint declaration of the Turkish Cypriots and Greek Cypriots on 11 February, for the resumption of the negotiations under the auspices of the United Nations is a welcome development.

The EU today represents a common future for its more than 500 million inhabitants. We believe that once the EU comes out of its economic straitjacket and makes the necessary reforms it will again be a point of attraction. Membership in the EU is a strategic goal of Turkey. We are aware of the requirements and thus determined to move forward with reforms, which have already, and extensively, undertaken in many areas. The world is changing rapidly and events in the international arena compel Turkey and the EU to move closer. This year will see a leadership change in the EU institutions. We do hope that the new members of the EU institutions recognise the value of Turkey and take the necessary steps to move ahead in the accession process.