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Van Rompuy sees 'concrete steps' in Turkey's EU bid (2013 05 24)

The president of the European Council
Herman Van Rompuy 

There should soon be "concrete steps" forward in Turkey's stalled application to join the European Union, the president of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy, predicted in a speech to business leaders in Ankara yesterday. He also claimed that one of the main roadblocks in the accession process, the Cyprus dispute, could be overcome by taking inspiration from the post-war reconciliation of Germany and France.

On his first official visit to the Turkish capital – during which he met the country's President Abdullah Gül, and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan – Van Rompuy said it was time to "rebuild momentum" in the relationship between Turkey and the EU. Turkey submitted its bid for EU membership in 1987 and started formal negotiations in 2005, but the talks have been frozen for three years amid opposition from some current member states and waning interest on the part of Turkish society.

Van Rompuy said: "Turkey's ties to the union are very strong. Last December, under my presidency, all 27 heads of state or government of the union confirmed their commitment to Turkey's accession process. After a moment of standstill, this commitment will give a new impetus and will soon be translated into a concrete step forward. And I am confident other such concrete steps forward will follow. The accession negotiations are the main driver of in our relationship. We knew in advance they would take time."

France was among the countries to recently soften its stance on Turkey's application, following Francois Hollande's election as president. His predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy had openly voiced his hostility to Ankara's EU ambitions, but in February this year Hollande's foreign minister Laurent Fabius announced that France would remove its block on one of the so-called negotiating chapters. German chancellor Angela Merkel has also given the go ahead for the revived discussions despite her own scepticism. Still, only 13 of the 35 chapters that must be agreed have been opened, and just one relating to science and research has been provisionally completed.

A major reason for the slow progress has been the ongoing dispute over Cyprus, which has been divided since a Greek Cypriot coup was followed by a Turkish invasion in 1974. Turkey is the only country to recognise the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, where it keeps 30,000 troops. The international community regards the north as occupied territory of the Republic of Cyprus, which joined the EU in 2004 and has led the opposition to Turkish membership. The issue caused a cooling of diplomatic relations last year when Cyprus held the EU's rotating presidency for six months. Yesterday, Van Rompuy said it was "essential" to find a settlement and argued that the discovery of gas reserves off the shores of Cyprus could prove to be the necessary incentive for a peaceful solution "for the benefit of all Cypriots".

"When looking into European history, I see a striking parallel," he said. "The historic reconciliation between France and Germany after many wars was built on the idea of sharing coal; coal and steel, the war-fuelling products, stood at the basis of the European project. In one brilliant move, political leaders on both sides turned around a situation, changing a mutual threat into a common opportunity, only five years after the end of the Second World War...switching gas for coal, could this not be an inspiration for the two communities of Cyprus?"

Hopes for a solution have grown since the election of Nicos Anastasiades as Cyprus's president in February. On a trip to the United States this month, Turkey's Erdogan said he saw a "lot of opportunity" for an agreement. And European Commission vice-president Olli Rehn, responsible for economic and monetary affairs and the euro, has suggested that reunification could give a "major boost to the economic and social development" of the island following the financial crisis, which that saw it forced to seek an international.

Meanwhile Van Rompuy said Turkey's potential for EU membership would also be boosted by moving further on constitutional reforms, especially in relation to freedom of expression, a topic that has raised concerns in Brussels. "Progress in this fundamental area is important for Turkish society, and will also improve the prospects of our bilateral relations, particularly as regards the process of accession. I am confident the Turkish leadership and representatives from all political parties will pursue this path – with determination and through dialogue."

He added: "The ties between the people in our societies are old and deep. Many EU citizens have a Turkish origin; many Turkish citizens residing in EU countries fully participate in economic, social and political life. We see a strong two-way traffic of businesses, of students, of tourists, of people exchanging ideas and sharing experiences. It's a sign of our cooperation and common interests." He encouraged the Turkish leadership to move quickly on signing a 'readmission agreement' that would pave the way towards visa free travel between Turkey and the EU. "It would, in a way, be like a new third bridge over the Bosporus," he said.

Van Rompuy praised Turkey's "dynamic" economic performance, noting that its average of 5 per cent growth over the last decade would be the best in the EU if it was a member, and that it would be the sixth or seventh largest economy in the bloc. "We envy your low level of public debt in these days of the sovereign debt crisis," he said. "The EU is Turkey's biggest trading partner. And Turkey is the EU's sixth biggest trading partner. No less than 75 per cent of foreign direct investment that flows into your country – with a strong high-technology component – comes from the union," the Belgian politician added, emphasising the ties between the two.

He attempted to dampen Turkish concerns about the impact of a possible free trade deal between the EU and the US, saying the bloc was "looking into the best way to keep Turkey involved in the process". In the wide-ranging speech, Van Rompuy also touched on the "terrible crisis" in Syria and recognised Turkey's role in offering humanitarian support, opening its borders "to those fleeing violence", and searching for a political solution. "The EU will continue working with Turkey, as well as with other partners and allies, in order to re-establish peace and stability in Syria. The political solution should aim for a Syria that is democratic, united and tolerant," he said.

© PublicServiceEurope.com, 23 May 2013


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