EU-Turkey: A timely starting point

SAMUEL DOVERI VESTERBYE
Published 18.11.2015 23:53

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, which 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 also affected politics and people and enlargement was put on hold. Xenophobia rose substantially and Europe's neighborhood was sidelined.

Europe was isolating itself, its neighborhood policy was failing and discrimination was rising. Europe's natural ally and geographical partner, Turkey, was brushed aside despite warnings from U.S. President Barack 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, has been 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 that confirm these trends, the 2015 Turkey Progress Report and the 2015 Survey Report, also known as "Promoting Dialogue and Solutions: What European Legislators Think of Turkey."

The findings of the report conducted by the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation (TESEV), a renowned research institute, were very revealing.

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

Why do most European parliamentarians want Turkey in the EU? According to the interviews and survey, the primary factors include the three reasons of "bridging East and West culturally," "economic growth" and "Middle East-European relations."

The EU and Turkey are realizing that cooperation and shared regional objectives remain key to Ankara and Brussels. Member countries are acknowledging foreign affairs as one of the EU's potential strengths, and supporters of a global Europe now include Germany and Sweden, as well as the Czech Republic, the U.K. and Italy.

The 2015 Turkey Progress Report shared a similar view. While criticism remained present, the real story was not 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 was not telling enough, the past month of diplomatic compliments definitively is. Optimism is high, and Cyprus, visa liberalization and common regional security is next on the agenda.

Yet one last hurdle remains. The Survey Report found that 94 percent 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 is up to the Muslim community to voice their disapproval of radicalism. At the same time, it is important for Europeans to unite against intolerance and prejudice.

A timely starting point could be Turkey, the EU's longest standing Muslim ally.

* EU representative for Young Friends of Turkey

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