Think-tank: ‘Privileged partnership’ rhetoric ‘undesired’

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French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s “talk about a ‘privileged partnership’ for Turkey goes against the EU’s commitments” to the country, Sinan Ülgen, chairman of the Centre for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies (EDAM), told EURACTIV in an interview.

Sinan Ülgen is chairman of the Centre for Economic and Foreign Policy Studies (EDAM) in Istanbul. Together with the Istanbul Policy Centre, he recently organised a conference in Bodrum on Turkey’s EU accession process. 

He was speaking to EURACTIV Publisher Christophe Leclercq.

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

What are your impressions from organising a series of conferences highlighting Turkey-EU relations?

Indeed, we are having this roundtable for the fifth time to bring together people who think about the future of Europe and issues that are of common concern to Europeans and Turks. 

Therefore we were able to discuss issues like enlargement, the problems facing enlargement, the Lisbon Treaty or in the case of Turkey, why we haven’t seen the type of momentum that was generated in the relationship in early 2004-2005, and how to revitalise this relationship. 

People who were present around the table were frank enough to come up with new ideas and new recommendations for both sides: the EU and Turkey.

There appears to be mutual distrust between the two sides, with each believing that the other has no political will to go ahead. How can this vicious circle be broken?

It could be broken if we take one or two very critical but symbolic steps. First of all, we should try to overcome two crucial problems. One is Cyprus, where reunification negotiations are ongoing. A settlement of the Cyprus problem will immensely benefit the relationship, it will lift some of the structural problems and will give the momentum that we need. 

The second step is a change in rhetoric from some of the political leaders in Europe and in particular from French President [Nicolas] Sarkozy. This talk about a ‘privileged partnership’ for Turkey goes against the EU’s commitments to Turkey, against the ‘acquis’ built up over years between Turkey and the EU, and against the spirit of enlargement negotiations.

You seem less concerned by the German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has used similar expressions?

I’m much less concerned about Chancellor Merkel because the dynamics of the coalition in Germany – even though it has changed now after the elections – meant that Germany, unlike France, didn’t massively block negotiation chapters. 

Merkel makes a difference between what she personally thinks, what her party’s line is and what the German government’s stance on Turkey is. Of course, Merkel might also be using Sarkozy in the sense that if there is already somebody who is blocking some of the negotiation chapters for Turkey, why should Germany stick its neck out? Maybe Merkel is using Sarkozy’s attitude towards Turkey. 

But nonetheless, from the public perception side, Sarkozy is visibly blocking Turkey’s progress towards the EU.

We are in a very long and institutional process that most people don’t fully understand. How could there be some practical steps which could give the relationship some momentum again?

One of the ideas that I personally tried to develop during this conference was essentially to address this problem of the dynamics of enlargement, being in the present circumstances to protract, to really create the positive mood that we have seen in past enlargements. The progress report […] is the tenth progress report. It’s losing its meaning. I have difficulties to say what the interest of this report is, as I know that there will be ten others.

What are your frustrations?

What I suggested is ‘let us keep tackling the process which is on the way’. But on top of that, let us build another process with milestones, benchmarks and concrete achievements. These can be in the area of free movement of people, of energy, of security, of Turkey’s relationship with the Common Foreign and Security Policy. But we should try to think a bit outside the box and see which concrete measures and benefits to both sides create ‘win-win’ situations even before the membership stage.

Regarding the free movement of people, what does Turkey need to do for the EU to lift the visa requirement?

Legally it is for Turkey and the EU to sign a re-admission agreement, which concerns migrants from third countries who cross Turkish territory to go to the EU. However, this is a very sensitive topic, because the geographical position of Turkey means that Turkey has to deal with a lot of migration from third countries. Therefore Turkey will need similar agreements with neighbouring countries or will have to establish infrastructure domestically to deal with these migrants.

Will this be possible in the short term?

In terms of establishing [migrant-hosting] infrastructure, both sides should come up with a reasonable financial plan. It’s easier than the signature of re-admission agreements with some of its neighbouring countries. There has been a Court of Justice decision a couple of months ago, which upheld the right of Turkish service providers to enter EU territory without the requirement of a visa. It opens the door for doing something that would benefit the public, especially the business community. All EU member states have to respect it. It’s part of the 1963 Association Agreement and the Addition Protocol of 1973. 

(For more on this topic, see EURACTIV 28/10/09).

Daniel Gros, director of the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS), said a ‘Union for the Environment’ between Turkey and the EU could see Turkey join the EU’s emissions trading scheme. What do you think?

I absolutely agree with Daniel Gros and I see it as a part of my own framework for superimposing the current negotiations with a new process which would have concrete areas of negotiations and benefits. One of them can indeed be the area of environment. 

The EU has created a system for emissions trading which is applicable within the EU member states and Turkey is a natural partner to be incorporated into the system. 

We are already in a customs union and Turkey is part of the internal market. Turkey has recently ratified the Kyoto Protocol and is ready to undertake several commitments for the second period of Kyoto, thus we will have a cap-and-trade system in Turkey. Extending the European emissions trading system to Turkey makes sense.

Let’s come to governments and symbols which could show that Turkey and Europe are cooperating. It strikes me that the founding fathers of the EU decided to start with concrete steps in the economic area, whereas relations between Turkey and the EU are in fact of a more political nature. Are you pushing for Turkey to have a voice in the EU market of which it is a part?

Absolutely, that is why the ‘privileged partnership’ rhetoric is undesired. Turkey can’t follow a model like the European Economic Area (EEA), in which the EU takes decisions and the EEA countries follow these decisions. Participation is missing, participation in decision-making. 

It’s the same for the internal market: Turkey is in a union, but it cannot participate in decisions on commercial policies – it has to follow these decisions. When we negotiate in the customs union, we ask for Turkey to be present at least as an observer. Now we need to think more constructively, because there is a need to reflect on the state of the relationship and a need to build trust among Turkish citizens that if the country complies with all the rules, with the aquis, with the Copenhagen criteria, then the door is open. There are serious doubts in Turks’ minds.

EDAM co-founder Kemal Dervi? wrote an interesting paper illustrating the progress of what he calls ‘informal governance’ as opposed to formal governance. Similar things are happening on the global scene: the G20 is progressing very fast, whereas reform of the IMF and the Central Bank are slow. If we draw a parallel with the EU situation, the negotiations are very slow and bureaucratic, whereas the scope for informal governance has been widely underused.

I agree and will give a concrete example. Last year, in June, the Commission and Turkey came together to organise the EU energy summit in Istanbul (see EURACTIV 14/07/09). It dealt with the questions of energy security, energy supplies and Nabucco project. It was well received by public opinion because it showed that the EU took Turkey into consideration in addressing some of its fundamental concerns related to energy security. 

It’s the kind of informal structure to address an area of common concern where both sides have to come together to create a renewed situation. Creating less formal modes of government – on diplomacy, energy, environment, or security and defence, for example – shows that both sides are ready to share the same destiny. 

What are the next projects?

Before the end of the year we have a couple of important projects. One is mainly focused on France. We are doing an elite survey in France on people who are influencing the debate on enlargement and Turkey. We already did one in 2006 and we will see how the debate has evolved in France.


TÜSIAD, the Turkish industry and business organisation, launched the Institut du Bosphore in Paris. Is there an overall logic behind these initiatives?

Yes, for sure. Firstly it coincides with the ‘saison culturelle‘. Secondly, we must invest more in the relationship with France in order to understand their core concerns. We are also doing a similar survey in Turkey about France to show the negative impact that this French position has had on the public perception of France in Turkey. 

Before the end of the year, we will also do a seminar with the EU agency, with the EU Institute of Security Studies based in Paris on security questions and on the NATO-EU relationship. 

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