TBY talks to Egemen Bağış, Minister for EU Affairs and Chief Negotiator, on the developing relationship between Turkey and the EU.

In light of the current sovereign debt crisis in Europe, many are questioning Turkey's bid to join the EU. Does Turkey's future still lie in an economic and diplomatic union in Europe?

It depends on how Turkish people perceive the EU. We see the EU project as “the grandest peace project in the history of mankind." When we go back to the main rationale behind the EU project, we see that it originated from the idea to build a peaceful relationship between nations at war for centuries. Therefore, it is inherently an inclusive, not exclusive project. Those who share the values enshrined in Article 49 in the Treaty on the EU can join the bloc. It is a value-oriented project and these values have derived from the shared experiences of humankind. When the EU project is described as such, there is no doubt that Turkey's future definitely lies in Europe. We belong to Europe. And why should we stay outside of it? Moreover, Turkey's EU membership process has tested in real terms the potential of Europe as a multicultural, peaceful, and economically prosperous union.

Is Cyprus the biggest barrier to EU membership?

At first glance, the Cyprus issue seems to be one of the biggest obstacles standing before Turkey's EU membership. Currently, only 13 chapters have been opened to negotiations, one of which was provisionally closed. Since the opening of the chapter on Food Safety, Veterinary and Phytosanitary Policy under the Spanish Presidency in 2010, no new chapters could be opened. It is mostly argued that what can be labeled as a stalemate in Turkey-EU accession negotiations mostly stems from the Cyprus problem. At present, eight chapters are suspended due to the decision taken by the EU General Affairs and External Relations Council on November 11, 2006 with regard to the implementation of the Additional Protocol. Due to the very same decision, the rest of the negotiation chapters cannot be closed even if all the technical harmonization procedures have been completed. The above-mentioned portrait reflects the Cyprus problem as the greatest barrier ahead of Turkey's EU membership. However, the truth is not always as it seems. Sometimes, realities are veiled behind superstitious covers. Indeed, if we were to perceive the EU as an actor working within the established rules and policies, we would have failed to notice the fact that a divided island was accepted to the bloc. Today, even EU officials admit that it was a big failure to grant the Greek Cypriot Administration membership at that time. As you might remember, through the “Annan Plan" prepared under the auspices of UN, a peaceful solution was targeted that would unite the island so as to enable both sides to have an equal say over their destiny. The idea was to make a united Cyprus a member of the EU, free of all its problems. However, the plan did not work out because of the unexpected “no" vote by the Greek Cypriots in the referendum held in April 2004. The reluctance of the Greek Cypriot side to reunify and its unwillingness to reach a resolution contributed to the continuation of the problem. Therefore, the Greek Cypriot Administration, which in essence was the real source of the puzzle that was placed on Turkey's table, was let in to join the EU together with all its unresolved problems. Just one week after the referendum, the Greek side was awarded with EU membership, whereas the Turkish Cypriots, who were striving for a solution, were left isolated outside the EU. Turkey and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus have always been the most vigorous supporters of peace on the island. As I have stated before, the results of the referendum on the Annan Plan clearly demonstrated to the international community that the Turkish side was in favor of a comprehensive settlement. The most serious aspect of the Cyprus problem is the unfair isolation and inhumane embargoes imposed on Northern Cyprus in all spheres of life and economic activity. We regard those unjust restrictions as more severe than the blockages ahead of our EU membership process. Therefore, we are calling upon all parties to lift all those restrictions on Northern Cyprus and expect the EU to adopt a fair stance on the Cyprus issue and Turkey's membership.

“It is clear that the EU needs Turkey as much as or even more than Turkey needs the EU."

What will be the main issues under negotiation in 2012 and 2013?

The years 2012 and 2013 will be ones in which Turkey will strive to unblock the deadlock in EU accession negotiations, as it has already taken the initial steps. Against all our efforts, the negotiation process is not proceeding as it ought to be. Even though the case for Turkey's membership is such a strong argument, the accession process has been facing resistance, particularly by certain member states, and 18 out of 22 chapters, which are pending to be opened, are blocked on political grounds. However, we are fully committed to the accession process, and for us 2012 and 2013 will be the years of striking reforms. EU membership is a strategic objective for Turkey and we are determined to continue the negotiations with the shared objective of full membership as is stated in our Negotiating Framework. Therefore, we continue our reform process patiently in every field of the acquis communautaire. In the last year alone, 14 primary and 150 secondary pieces of legislation have been enacted within the framework of the EU harmonization process. In this respect, our main objective is in raising the level of Turkey's alignment with the EU acquis to the upmost until the beginning of 2014. I would like to stress that, for some people, the EU Presidency of the Greek Cypriot Administration is one of the big issues for negotiations in 2012. However, for us it is not as we will not change our position. We will continue our relations with EU institutions and organs as usual.

What progress has been made on the visa issue?

The mobility of Turkish citizens in European countries has been adversely affected by the Schengen visa requirement. Turkey has recently become the only candidate country whose citizens still need to apply for a visa when visiting EU countries since the liberalization of visas for the citizens of Western Balkan nations in 2009 and 2010. Moreover, several third countries that have no interest in joining the EU are to benefit from the Schengen visa exemption. Visa procedures in practice prove to be too long and burdensome, so that even if Turkish citizens manage to get a visa in the end, their feeling of unfair treatment is consolidated during the process. The policy and attitude of EU countries are strengthening Turkish citizens' perceptions of being subject to double standards and their sense of alienation from the EU. Such policies are not conducive to create an environment of mutual understanding and willingness to build up a future together amongst the Turkish people and the European peoples. Various segments of Turkish society cannot make use of the opportunities presented by the accession process since the visa requirement functions as an obstacle, in particular for Turkish NGOs, universities, and youth in benefiting from EU funds and projects. Similarly, the visa requirement prevents the realization of the conditions for fair competition, which Turkish businessmen should enjoy within context of the Customs Union, giving, on the contrary, an unfair advantage to European businessmen. Turkey is a country with a long-standing relationship with the EU. Its citizens should not be subject to the EU visa procedures anymore in the light of the impressive as well as the stable economic growth and societal and political development of the country.

What impact would visa liberalization have for the EU economy?

Within the last decade Turkey has achieved stable economic growth, dynamism, and a well-functioning democracy. Thanks to our remarkable achievements in economy and increasing foreign trade volume, Turkey plays a prominent role in international organizations and has become more influential in the international arena. European countries, on the other hand, are faced with a severe economic crisis and consequently they would essentially be the ones who would benefit from the increased opportunities of visits by Turkish citizens either for economic or social purposes, including of course commercial visits. A mutually beneficial relationship between Turkey and the EU is a win-win situation for both sides. It is clear that the EU needs Turkey as much as or even more than Turkey needs the EU.

© The Business Year - May 2012