The new head of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, might be skeptical of Turkey’s accession to the European Union, but the process is tied to institutions and not individuals, outgoing head Manuel Barroso has indicated, suggesting Ankara and Brussels “are bound to succeed together.”
Barroso will be in Turkey Sept. 29 to attend the World Economic Forum’s Special Meeting on Unlocking Resources for Regional Development, although the visit is also serving as a de facto farewell tour for the veteran diplomat.
What do you intend to discuss in your meetings here?
I will meet Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, with whom I will discuss bilateral interests. We will surely discuss Syria.
With the civil society, I am aiming at discussing fundamental rights, overall EU-Turkey relations and the role of civil society in the country.
I will also address the business community. So, this will be a very short visit but with a rich agenda, which shows how Turkey remains a strategic, key partner for us.
How would you rate Turkey’s overall performance as a candidate country since the start of the negotiations in 2005?
Let me start by saying that EU-Turkey relations are almost as old as the EU itself! We are close partners – and it is absolutely critical that we sustain and deepen this partnership. I think both Europeans and Turks understand this shared interest very well.
Turkey has gone through tremendous changes over the past 10 years. The most spectacular change obviously concerns the economy. Turkey has become a much wealthier country and qualified as a functioning market economy, one of the economic criteria for EU accession.
Turkey has also made progress in its alignment with the EU legislation. As regards the political criteria, as you know, the picture is mixed, with a number of undisputed achievements on the one hand, but also a number of concerns over the rule of law and fundamental freedoms on the other.
What is your reaction to the Turkish government’s recently announced EU strategy?
It is of course welcomed that the new government has tabled its EU Strategy, which is intended to reinvigorate Turkey’s work on its European path. We would like to see this clear European commitment on the Turkish side. We therefore look forward to seeing detailed action plans and timelines.
Do you believe that Turkey will integrate harmoniously with the EU?
I believe the answer lies with Turkey itself. At the end of the day, the overall perception of your country’s readiness for accession depends on Turkey’s own willingness and credibility in respecting and enforcing all the standards and values of the EU, starting with key areas like democracy, the rule of law and fundamental rights.
I strongly believe in the merits of this accession process – and I have repeatedly said so – but eventually it’s Turkey that has to make progress on the ground and by doing so will have to win the hearts and minds of the citizens in the EU. In turn we have to keep the enlargement process so that the hearts and minds of the Turkish citizens remain with the European project.
You met then PM Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in January and raised concerns regarding the independence or impartiality of the judiciary. You also said Erdoğan gave you guarantees for the protection of the separation of powers.
In fact we also met at the beginning of the month, at the NATO Summit, in Wales! I have a friendly relationship with Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. I have known him for many years. I admire the courageous reforms he has undertaken – including his recent efforts to achieve, at last, a settlement of the Kurdish issue. I spoke to him frankly, as a true friend, when he came to visit me in Brussels in January. I told him how damaging the response to corruption allegations was for the image of Turkey abroad. I told him this precisely because of the importance of EU-Turkey relations, and the huge potential they entail for both sides. I expressed my concerns over these developments and their possible effect on the accession negotiations, the very vehicle of our joint path ahead.
Has the government lived up to its promise since then?
Let me refer you to the numerous statements made over the year by the commission, which reflect our persistent preoccupation on these issues and the concerns expressed at the occasion of the Association Council in June. A detailed assessment will be provided in the upcoming progress report.
Fortunately, the Turkish Constitutional Court overturned a number of the most damaging legal provisions, adopted in haste, including the ban on Twitter and YouTube. All this reinforces the need for a closer engagement between Turkey and the commission, as well as the Council of Europe, on the rule of law and fundamental rights.
We need to be realistic: at this stage we need to move forward on the accession negotiations; and this is only possible if Turkey seriously addresses the shortcomings regarding the rule of law and fundamental rights. A breakthrough on the Cyprus settlement talks will also greatly facilitate this process.
Are you worried about the press freedoms and freedom of expression in Turkey?
We are following developments in this field very closely and assess the state of the media freedom in the annual progress reports.
The recent example of the sudden, unexpected change to the Internet law, adopted without any consultation of the stakeholders concerned, unfortunately reflects a restrictive approach to freedom of expression in general, and the Internet in particular. The commission has voiced its concerns quite strongly; this only underlines the urgent need for a much closer cooperation between Turkey and the EU on these issues.
Accession negotiations are not just a technical process of gradual alignment and enforcement of legislation. Negotiations are based on shared values and a common understanding of the rule of law, democracy and human rights.
Is Turkey still important for the EU? What happens if Europe loses Turkey?
As I said before: Turkey is and remains a key partner for the EU. This has been repeated many times by the Council of the EU and by the commission, and I’m sure this will again be one of the central messages of the upcoming progress report.
Take any major challenge we are faced with – from the economic crisis and energy security to migration policy or terrorism – Turkey appears as a strategic partner for the European Union and as part of the solution. Not to mention of course Turkey’s crucial role in its neighborhood – which is also the EU’s neighborhood. The way Turkey has so far offered shelter to a million of Syrian refugees and recently to Kurdish refugees is very impressive. But to be able to tackle all these challenges, Turkey strongly needs the EU, too! We are bound to succeed together. There is also a large, untapped potential for cooperation between us. This ranges from foreign policy to counter-terrorism, the economy, trade, energy, migration policy and the visa dialogue.
So I am not even remotely thinking about “losing” Turkey. We have so many joint responsibilities and shared interests. Fortunately, given the strength of our joint interests, I don’t see such a scenario coming up!