Former European Commissioner for Enlargement Günter Verheugen, who served from 1999 to 2004, said the EU is responsible for the tense relations with Turkey, emphasizing the country's importance for the union.
"In 2002 to 2005, Turkey had accomplished the fastest changes that Europe had seen to that date. At the 1999 Helsinki Summit, the EU clearly said that it wants Turkey [as a member]. It followed this strategy. We know what kind of a central importance Turkey has for Europe and the security of Europe," Verheugen said at the Condition of Europe conference in Berlin.
Verheugen also criticized German Chancellor Angela Merkel for having a policy on Turkey that is not honest.
"On the one hand, you will say that the German government is loyal to EU agreements, but on the other, you say that Turkey does not belong in the EU. What should Turks do in response to such an attitude," he asked.
Answering questions from the Hürriyet daily after the conference, Verheugen said that he sees a slight improvement in Ankara-Brussels relations.
"Both sides have realized that we need each other. We cannot continue as in the past year and we need to rebuild the atmosphere of trust and work on the solutions to problems," he said.
"In Europe, an impression is being created as if EU membership is only the aim of Turkey. This is wrong. Turkey's EU membership is Europe's aim as well, and the EU should go back to this mutual aim," Verheugen said, adding that there are some people who want to benefit from this situation and end the process as a whole by claiming that they have already said that Turkey could not accomplish the membership criteria.
"There are people who say that Turkey should realize that this project has failed and come up with a conclusion. I'm calling my Turkish friends not to fall into this trap. Do not give up. Time will change," he further said.
Although it was one of the first countries to join the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1959, and applied for full EU membership in 1987, Turkey still has candidate country status. In the meantime, many countries in Europe have met the membership criteria and have been accepted as EU members, despite applying much later than Ankara.
Official accession talks with Ankara began in 2005. However, negotiations stalled in 2007 due to objections from Greek Cyprus concerning the divided island, as well as opposition from Germany and France. Since then, Ankara has only fulfilled and closed one of 16 opened chapters of the Copenhagen criteria.
In September, in an exclusive interview with Anadolu Agency (AA), Verheugen criticized German leaders for calling for an end to Ankara's EU membership negotiations.
"I think both Chancellor Angela Merkel and her rival Martin Schulz are aware that Germany cannot simply call of Turkey's EU membership talks. For that to happen, all other EU members should back such a move. But this is not the case," he said. "The EU should make it perfectly clear that Turkey's EU membership is a strategic priority for the union, not something that one can lay aside."
Verheugen added that only a credible EU membership prospect could help advance democracy and the rule of law in Turkey.
Relations between Turkey and EU member states, particularly Germany, have been strained over a range of issues since last year.
Ankara has been arguing that the EU fails to understand the challenges the county faces, and calls on all sides to take Turkey's concerns into consideration, particularly against the PKK and the Gülenist Terror Group (FETÖ), which carried out the failed July 15 coup attempt. Yet recently, Berlin and Ankara have shown signs of reconciliation and a desire to turn the page.
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