Fragile Nature of EU-Turkey Relations: Interview with Laura Batalla

 

Laura Batalla is the Secretary-General of the European Parliament Turkey Forum which is a group comprised of members of the European Parliament who have a keen interest in EU-Turkey relations. It was created in 2010 by several members of the European Parliament coming from different political groups. With over 60 members it is the largest group of its kind in the European Parliament.

The EP-Turkey Forum aims to advance a well-informed debate on issues related to EU-Turkey relations from a constructive point of view while serving as a bridge between Turkey and the EU. We act as a platform for high-level discussions between European and Turkish officials, political decision-makers, experts and civil society actors. In the past seven years, the group has successfully positioned itself at the core of the debate on EU-Turkey relations.

Mehmet Enes Beşer made an interview with Mrs. Batalla on the fragile EU-Turkey relations and the future prospects.

 

Welcome, Laura. Thanks for accepting our request.

Naturally, you are following closely the EU-Turkey relations. How do you explain the recent dispute between two parts? Do you expect a short-term solution?

I wouldn’t call it a dispute. However, it is true that we may have hit our lowest point in EU-Turkey relations since accession negotiations started in 2005.

In my opinion, this is due to two reasons. On the one hand, we see a growing concern from the EU side regarding the democratic backsliding in Turkey. As a candidate country, Turkey is expected to uphold democratic values included under the so-called Copenhagen criteria as a precondition for EU membership. It is questionable whether Turkey complies with the political Copenhagen criteria nowadays.

However, the EU has not used the accession tools to the fullest in order to prevent the political deterioration in our relations. The accession process has been unfortunately blocked since the beginning due to political reasons. Only a few negotiation chapters have been opened so far. The opening of chapters 23 and 24 on Judiciary and fundamental rights and Justice, freedom and security could have had a very positive impact on political reforms in Turkey. The European Parliament has long been calling for the opening of these two chapters without success.

After ten years of talks, progress has been almost non-existent. However, either suspending or ending talks would be a fatal mistake. Keeping Turkey anchored to the EU is the best way to improve our relations.

 

The EU-Turkey deal, in the intensive agenda of Turkey, no longer finds much room. How is the situation in Europe?

The deal is not high on the agenda anymore as the refugee arrivals in Europe have decreased drastically following its activation. This does however not mean that the situation of refugees is any better. One year after its implementation, the deal has delivered mixed results. Questions remain regarding its compliance with international law and the effective protection of refugees.

On the other hand, the deal has further pushed the EU and Turkey apart. While Turkey has so far lived up to its side of the deal, some of the promises made to Ankara have not been kept. Nonetheless, the Facility for Refugees in Turkey, set up to support refugees outside camps, is progressing well. The total amount disbursed has reached €838 million (out of €3 billion) and the Member States seem committed to mobilizing an additional €3 billion up to the end of 2018.

Despite threats to cancel the deal, the deal is likely to remain in place because it is in the interest of both parties. While Turkey has been doing a commendable job by hosting more than 3.2 million Syrian refugees, Europe has failed to take its fair share of responsibility due to a lack of political will among some Member States. Syrian refugees are likely to spend many more years in Turkey before the situation in their home country improves. That is why it is so critical to intensify the assistance to Syrian refugees in Turkey, not only in satisfying their material needs but also in settling and integrating into society.

 

Does the tension between Turkey and the EU affect other areas as well?

The current state in our relations is affecting many areas of our cooperation. It is the case of the modernization of the Customs Union. In December 2016, the Commission proposed to modernize the Customs Union and to extend the bilateral trade to areas such as services, public procurement, and sustainable development, as recommended in the World Bank report.

The Commission’s proposal is being discussed in the European Parliament and the Council at the moment. However, in light of the deteriorating situation in Turkey, the discussions have been put on hold. One possible way forward would be to include a clause on human rights and fundamental freedoms in the upgraded Customs Union, as suggested by the European Parliament.

On the other hand, in the last European Council meeting held in October EU leaders agreed to ask the European Commission to cut or reroute some of the 4.4 billion euros Turkey is due to get as part of its accession talks in 2014-20 funds. The exact figure has not yet been agreed. The idea is to use accession funding for the promotion of rule of law and human rights.

While cooperation in areas like trade, energy or transport continues, without an improvement in the overall political situation in Turkey making progress in any area seems virtually impossible.

 

What do you propose to reduce tension?

We have to overcome difficulties, mistrust and misunderstanding in our relationship and the only way to do this is to engage in an honest, sincere and open political dialogue.

Turkey and the EU have both been going through particularly difficult times.  The only way to understand each other’s perspective and concerns is through dialogue, not limited solely to the government level.

Turkey’s involvement with European integration dates back to more than a half-century ago. We are therefore bound together by many ties. However long and hard the road may be neither side can afford to lose the other.


 

*transcribed by Amy Pitonak, BMS Turkey researcher.

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