A new hope for Turkey's EU bid
In order to break the current stalemate in membership talks, Ankara and Brussels launched a new process called the "positive agenda."
By Ayhan Simsek for SES Türkiye in Ankara -- 22/05/12
Turkey and the EU launched a new process, the so-called "positive agenda," on May 17th in order to keep Turkey's troubled membership talks alive and give them fresh momentum. Experts are cautiously optimistic and say success depends on determination and concrete steps from both sides.
Turkey's EU Minister Egemen Bagis met with EU Enlargement chief Stefan Fule last week to resume the accession process. [Reuters]
Turkey Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has accused Germany of letting Turkey down by not doing more to support its EU membership bid. [Reuters]
Turkey is the longest-waiting country on the EU accession list. [Reuters]
"We believe that the positive agenda will bring dynamism to EU-Turkey relations in all areas of joint interest, as well as the accession negotiations," Undersecretary of Turkey's EU Ministry, Ambassador Haluk Ilicak, told SES Türkiye. "We welcome the efforts of the Commission under the positive agenda as it aims at introducing concrete steps for supporting the accession process in many fields, particularly in the chapters with political blockages," he said.
Turkey is the longest-waiting country on the EU's accession list. Talks began in 2005 but the process has ground virtually to a halt, due to the unresolved Cyprus problem and former French President Nicolas Sarkozy's veto of opening five key chapters of the accession talks. Due to the Cyprus problem and Greek-led Cyprus government’s opposition, 14 other chapters are blocked.
To become an EU member, a candidate country must adopt more than 100,000 pages of EU legislation and standards, divided into 35 main chapters. These chapters cover various policy areas, including health, energy, education, agriculture and foreign policy, among others.
The long stalemate in Turkey's EU process has started to damage the interests of both sides in a wider context. The EU has lost some of its leverage with Turkey. Reforms for democratisation have stalled, while in the areas of freedom of press and rule of law the situation has reversed. In some areas of common interest, like energy, security or EU-NATO co-operation, co-operation has been limited and in some cases hindered.
In order to break this stagnation in the EU process, Turkey's EU Minister and chief negotiator Egemen Bagis and EU Enlargement chief Stefan Fule officially started the positive agenda with a May 17th meeting in Ankara.
One of the main goals is to make progress in Turkey’s further alignment with European laws and standards. European Commission bureaucrats and their Turkish counterparts will initially work together on eight chapters, despite the fact that these chapters are not yet officially opened as part of the accession talks.
"The objective of the working groups is to work on the opening and closing benchmarks and to open and close as many chapters as possible within the shortest period of time once the political blockages are removed," Ilicak told SES Türkiye. "We agreed with the commission that positive agenda would not bring an alternative to the accession negotiations; rather it would serve to support the membership process."
A prominent EU expert, Cengiz Aktar of Bahçesehir University in Istanbul, is cautiously optimistic about the new process. "The state of relations between the EU and Turkey is so dull, so weak that I cannot even call it a membership process. It couldn’t be worse than what it is now," Aktar said. "So any pro-active move, any positive move like positive agenda will certainly help."
Erhan Akdemir, an EU expert from Ankara University's European Research Centre (ATAUM), is withholding judgment for now.
"This process is of course a positive thing. But it will only reach its objectives when the EU will make concrete steps in lifting political blockages and eventually open accession chapters," he told SES Türkiye.
Both Turkish diplomats and the EU Commission hope to open a new accession chapter next month, to revive the process.
"There is one chapter which is ready to be opened. Ironically, it is the chapter on the euro," said Aktar, referring to the current financial crisis in the eurozone.
The Economic and Monetary Policy chapter was earlier blocked by Sarkozy, who argued that this chapter, together with four others, foresee full membership and should never be opened. Now, with the political change in France, Turkey is more optimistic.
A new negotiation chapter might be opened during the current Denmark presidency of the EU. But much will depend on the outcome of the French legislative elections that will take place between June 10 and 17th. Diplomats will have only two weeks to achieve this, since Denmark’s presidency wraps up at the end of June. If this is not achieved, hopes for opening a new chapter will have to wait until 2013, when Ireland will assume the presidency from the Greek-led Republic of Cyprus.
Turkish diplomats hope that the technical work on eight chapters in the coming months will result in progress. New chapters that would be opened after 2013 would then be completed in relatively short periods, as Turkey will start preparations now. Turkey has so far been able to open 13 of the 35 negotiating chapters, successfully concluding only one.
The talks stalled since 2005 have created frustration and anti-EU sentiment among Turkish citizens. Support for joining the EU dropped to 54% in 2011, while in 2004, almost 73% of the public said membership would be "a good thing."
Both the European Commission and Turkey now aim to win back public support for the EU process and reforms with the positive agenda.
"There is one interesting dossier, in this regard, part of the positive agenda. It is the visa issue," Aktar said. "Turkey, despite its close relations with the EU, is kind of punished when you compare it with other candidate countries, in terms of visa liberalisation. If the European Commission can manage to convince the Council of comprehensive visa facilitation for Turkey, of course this will have a huge positive impact on Turkish public opinion."
Much too will depend on Turkey’s decision to sign a readmission agreement. Under this, the EU wants Turkey to commit to take back all Turkish nationals found in the EU without a visa or residence permit, as well as third-country nationals who have reached the EU via Turkey. The EU’s strict visa regulations against Turkish nationals have been a main reason for the growing distrust expressed in opinion polls.
In addition to dialogue on visa liberalisation, the positive agenda also foresees closer co-operation between the EU and Turkey on common interest areas like trade, energy, counter-terrorism and foreign policy. The European Commission also wants to promote progress in areas that the Commission identified as "crucial for enhancing freedoms and living standards of the Turkish people," such as political reforms and fundamental rights.
Akdemir says that while the primary responsibility for Turkey's stalled membership talks rests with European states like France and Germany, Turkey also failed to make further progress in democratic reforms, fundamental rights and rule of law.
"Compared with the years of 1999 and 2005, when Turkey went through an impressive and comprehensive democratic reform process, in recent years we have almost forgotten our responsibilities," Akdemir told SES Türkiye.
For the success of the positive agenda, he says two things are crucial. Firstly, "This new process should be based on mutual confidence. The EU should give Turkey a clear perspective, should show a clear commitment to Turkey’s full membership."
Secondly, "Turkey should also make concrete and real progress in democratic reforms, particularly in the fields of press freedom and freedom of expression," Akdemir said. "And the current work to write Turkey’s first fully civilian constitution is a great opportunity for this goal."