Olli Rehn: Turkey membership ‘vital’ for EU

Future enlargements are “a vital part of the solution” to problems that the EU will face in the decades to come, according to Commissioner Olli Rehn. The “progressive and well-managed” integration of Turkey into the European Union should be part of this strategy, he says in an exclusive interview with EURACTIV.

Olli Rehn is the EU’s commissioner responsible for enlargement.

To read a shortened version of this interview, please click here.

The Commission is about to publish its regular report on Turkey’s progress in accession negotiations. We know there are lots of pending issues, including the protection of minorities and the influence of the military on political life, which have not gone away and are likely to reappear in the progress report. 

Can you tell us how this year’s message will be different from last year’s? What are the issues which, in the Commission’s view, have gained in importance in the meantime? 

I understand your interest in the upcoming progress report on Turkey, but of course it is still a work in progress and I can’t comment on it until it has been adopted by the College of Commissioners. But I can tell you that our report will be objective and fair, as in previous years. 

With the democratic election of the new President and of the new parliament, Turkey has overcome its constitutional crisis this year. The new government has put the EU accession process and the constitutional reform at the top of its agenda, with a view to improving democracy and expanding fundamental freedoms. The reforms should now be re-launched in full and without delay. 

The European Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee recently adopted a draft resolution on Turkey’s progress towards accession. It said that freedom of expression and the press should be the government’s “number one priority” and called for a new constitution to protect human rights and ensure freedom of expression. Do you agree? Or do you think other priorities, like a resolution of the Cyprus issue, are more important? 

I agree that among all the reforms, freedom of expression is the first and foremost priority, since it underpins the functioning of an open, democratic and self-confident society. This means that Article 301 must be repealed or revised. 

We are following closely the debate on the planned reform of the constitution. We understand that it is inspired by the need to enhance the protection of human rights. We hope that the reforms will be widely discussed in the country and broad political support garnered in parliament. It is important that the new constitution enhances democracy and freedoms. 

The debate on the reform, which will certainly take several months, should not prevent the government from making progress on certain issues requiring urgent attention, such as freedom of expression and religious freedoms. Progress on fundamental freedoms and international obligations are not mutually exclusive – both are priorities. In relation to Cyprus, Turkey has well-known obligations related to the implementation of the Ankara protocol. We urge Turkey to respect its obligations, and the sooner, the better. 

The US House of Representatives could soon adopt a motion that would qualify the mass killings of Armenians during the First World War as “genocide”. Could the Armenian issue also be raised by the Commission as an additional political criteria for Turkey’s accession? 

When it comes to this painful and sensitive subject, my first message is to call for a genuine and sincere dialogue between Turkey and Armenia. I have a deep respect for history, for the truth and for the memory of the people who lost their lives in the tragic events of 1915. This is an issue that needs to be examined by historians in an open dialogue, based on serious scholarly work. This is the only way that leads to lasting reconciliation. This issue has not been set as a condition for Turkey’s EU accession. 

European public opinion is largely sceptical of Turkish membership. Can enlargement decisions be taken without public consent? Or should decisions on future EU enlargements be left to a “group of wise men” as suggested by Nicolas Sarkozy? 

Decisions on enlargement have always been taken unanimously by the EU member states. The same applies for Turkey. The EU’s approach towards Turkey was confirmed clearly in recent European councils. 

The support of EU citizens is key to any European policy, including enlargement. This is why communication is a cornerstone of our enlargement policy to generate a well-informed debate in the public. 

Turkey’s accession is not for today and it is not an automatic process. It will be a long and sometimes difficult journey, which will generate an important transformation of the country. Turkey can only join once it has fulfilled the conditions and thus complies with European principles and laws. This is the Turkey that the citizens will have to look at when deciding about their support. 

As for the proposition of the President Sarkozy, I am confident that any group of wise men and women will see that enlargement is not the problem but rather a vital part of the solution to many problems that the EU will face in the coming decades. 

Think about energy security, climate change, cross-border crime, ageing populations and consequent labour shortages, economic competitiveness and the rise of new economic powers. In all of these areas, the progressive and well-managed integration of Turkey and the Balkans will help the European Union manage the challenges ahead effectively. 

The Turkish Parliament today gave its green light to a possible military operation against PKK fighters in Northern Iraq. What will be the Commission’s reaction if such an operation actually happens?  

I am not going to speculate on potential future scenarios. The Commission condemns all terrorist attacks as criminal and unjustifiable under any circumstances. We regret the suffering caused by these actions. Turkey faces continual cross-border terrorist attacks from the PKK, which is on the EU list of terrorist organisations. The Commission understands Turkey’s need to protect its citizens. We continue to urge Turkey and Iraq to tackle this problem through cooperation between the relevant authorities and by respecting international law. In this context, the recent bilateral agreement between Turkey and Iraq on the fight against terrorism is a welcome step.