The latest EU report; could it be a turning point?

The latest EU report; could it be a turning point?

The Oct. 16, Progress Report of the European Commission on Turkey is the latest of a series started in 1998. No other, present or former candidate country holds such a record. The mood of the Commission’s Reports over the past fifteen years has moved cyclically from optimism and appraisal of the path to reform to pessimism and criticism of it. The main novelty of the present issue is the downward cyclical phase seems to have come to an end. Most of the commentators have labeled it as “equilibrated”. We can also look at it as a turning point report. 

Criticism is not absent, but mostly confined to a specific fact: the Gezi park issue. Concerns also arise on “lack of dialogue and spirit of compromise among political parties”. What the Report appreciates is the fact that the reform process, through the democratization package, is again in motion. At the same time, among the usual concerns on the current account deficit, the economy’s improved fundamentals, the enhanced resilience to shocks and the functioning of market mechanisms has remained appropriate. 

Overall there is a renovated wind of confidence. The best environment needed to re-launch the accession process. 

The expectation that has arisen from the Report is that finally negotiations will start, not only for Chapter 22 (Regional policy), but also on the other chapters and, as announced by the Commission on Chapters 23 and 24, concerned with fundamental rights, freedom and justice. 

Actually, the bulk of work has still to be done. To a great extent this work, which has been called negotiations, but is in fact an adaptation of the Turkish legal system to European laws, is much more technical than political. This implies the progressive advance in the opening and closure of many chapters, while representing a necessary condition for membership, may not be sufficient. A set of political issues could, facilitate or hold back, according to the adopted solutions, the advance of negotiations. 

The most prominent of these issues is of course Cyprus. These days, positive developments are taking place; a new round of talks will surely facilitate negotiations. However, another Cyprus related issue, pending since 2005, has to be resolved in order to allow opening new chapters: i.e., the opening of Turkish ports and airports to Cypriot vessels and aircrafts. This is an obligation of Turkey, as a consequence of the establishment of the Custom Union and of the accession to the EU by the Republic of Cyprus. A positive step from the Turkish government will surely improve the climate and positively influence the European Council’s disposition. 

At the same time the EU has been called upon to find a quick and positive answer to the visa issue. It is in the logic of the Custom Union that businessman could travel freely throughout its Member States. Where businessmen of a certain country are hampered to do so, unfair competition takes place. The visa issue between the EU and Turkey is wider, but the lifting of visas for businessman and more generally professionals, would be a significant initial step. The important thing is both parts get out of the “you should take the first step” approach, which has simply led to a permanent stall.

Not only do high political issues contribute to the climate change between Turkey and Europe. Let us take the case of the Erasmus project. An excellent opportunity for Turkish students to meet their colleagues from other EU Member States, to explain Turkish culture, traditions, politics, motivations to be a member of the EU and so on. Turkish students should, however, be trained for this. A specific government project to train Erasmus outgoing students as young ambassadors of Turkey (ambassadors appointed to the youth of Europe) would be a further, but essential piece to generate a climate change. 

Turkey’s accession process into the EU, according to a questioned expression of the negotiating framework, is an open ended one. The last Progress Report is an encouraging step, but good political will by both parts is the indispensable ingredient to find a successful conclusion.

Angelo Santagostino is a professor at Yildirim Beyazit University, Ankara.