EU-Turkey: A timely starting point

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

Turkish Presiden Recep Tayyip Erdo?an and Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker [European Commission]

The past year has seen an important change from stalemate to strategic thinking in the relationship between the EU and Turkey, writes Samuel Doveri Vesterbye.

Samuel Doveri Vesterbye is EU representative for the NGO Young Friends of Turkey.

The European Union’s enlargement policy once lay at the center of European integration. Up until 2004 the accession of new member countries was part of the natural evolution of an open and ever-changing union. The aim was to work together on forward-thinking priorities like a shared neighborhood with economic growth and inclusiveness.

Then came the financial crisis. It had two major impacts, both of which the EU is only recovering from now.

First, the crisis struck at Europe’s heart, the economy. Between the second quarter of 2008 and 2009 – for 15 long months – the EU experienced a deep recession. The same occurred again in 2012 and 2013, resulting in a slow-down of trade and investments.

Second, the economic slump affected politics and people. Enlargement was put on hold. Xenophobia rose substantially and Europe’s neighborhood was sidelined.

Europe was isolating itself. It’s neighborhood policy was failing and discrimination was rising. Europe’s natural ally and geographical partner, Turkey, was brushed aside despite warnings from American President Obama.

That was until early 2015. The past year has seen an important change from stalemate to strategic thinking. Regional security, ranging from terrorism to refugees, was an important wake-up call for all European leaders, including Turkey.

Now, Ankara’s role in the accession process matters more than ever. So does Europe’s global voice, which includes our European neighbors to the South and East. The need to share information and work together is spilling over into new policy areas every day. 

Two reports went public this year confirming these trends: The 2015 Turkish Progress Report and the 2015 Survey Report, also known as ‘Promoting Dialogue and Solutions: What European Legislators Think of Turkey’.

Conducted by the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation, a renowned research institute, the findings turned out to be very revealing.

They confirm that the tide is shifting. 81% of parliamentarians from Belgium, France, Germany, UK and the European Parliament say that it would be an advantage to have Turkey as a member of the EU. That’s very significant news. 

Why do most European parliamentarians want Turkey in the EU? According to the interviews and survey, the primary factors include the following three reasons:

“Bridging East and West culturally”, “Economic Growth” and “Middle East-European Relations”. Europe and Turkey are realising that cooperation and shared regional objectives remain key to Ankara and Brussels. Member countries are acknowledging foreign affairs as one of Europe’s potential strengths. 

And supporters of a global Europe now include Germany and Sweden, as well as the Czech Republic, UK and Italy.

The 2015 Progress Report shared a similar view.

While criticism remained present, the real story wasn’t difficult to spot. The EU praised Turkey on refugees and referred to a parallel structure for the first time ever in a progress report. The emphasis on cooperation was evident. And if that wasn’t telling enough, the past month of ‘diplomatic compliments’ definitively is. Optimism is high and next on the agenda is Cyprus, visa liberalisation and common regional security. 

Yet one last hurdle remains. The Survey Report suggests that 94% of parliamentarians believe that the accession process with Turkey is tainted by socio-cultural prejudice. And whereas the political environment is optimistic, the European public still needs to address its prejudices against Muslims. 

After the horrific attacks in France, it’s up to the Muslim community to voice their disapproval against radicalism. At the same time, it’s important for Europeans to unite against intolerance and prejudice.

A timely starting point could be Turkey, Europe’s longest standing Muslim ally.

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