On 2 December 2015, Nicolas Schmit, the Minister responsible for relations with the European Parliament during the Luxembourg Presidency of the EU Council, addressed the plenary session of Parliament in Brussels on the results of the EU-Turkey summit held on 29 November 2015. At that meeting, a joint action plan was adopted by the EU and Turkey to tackle the refugee crisis. The EU will provide a fund of EUR 3 billion to help Turkey receive and host Syrian refugees on Turkish territory.
'This meeting has achieved concrete results'
'This meeting was very timely, because it enabled issues of vital importance for the Union's security' to be dealt with, said Nicolas Schmit, by way of introduction. He believed the meeting had achieved 'concrete results', 'in terms of revitalising these relations, the liberalisation of the visa system, readmission and humanitarian and financial aid to the two million refugees in Syria'. It also confirmed the 'need for increased cooperation' and 'regular dialogue' with Turkey.
The minister stressed the importance, under the current circumstances, of engaging in debate with Turkey, both on the migration issue and on the wider framework of relations between the EU and Turkey. 'We share many common interests with Turkey, and it is vital for us to cooperate in view of the three major crises affecting us and Turkey', he said, referring to the war in Syria and 'the overriding need to find a political solution to the 'murderous and destabilising' conflict, the refugee problem, which is directly linked to the conflict, and, finally, the terrorism which has struck in the EU and Turkey'.
The minister made it clear, however, that 'everything we have agreed with Turkey should nonetheless encourage us to continue what we are doing within the EU', citing the need to strengthen control over the EU's external borders, and to make progress with regard to relocation policies.
'All the elements agreed at the summit must move forward in parallel, and be carefully evaluated', said Nicolas Schmit. He made it clear that 'this also holds true for the accession process', emphasising that all the conditions that apply to applicant countries are 'obviously' applicable to Turkey.
In the view of Frans Timmermans, a new chapter in relations with Turkey has been opened
Frans Timmermans, Vice-President of the European Commission, stated that we should not be 'ashamed' of the agreement with Turkey, because it is based on a 'shared interest'. The agreement will enable migration flows to be better managed, illegal migration to be stamped out and the borders to be better protected. The summit went well beyond the refugee crisis, said the Vice-President. 'We hope this summit will make it possible to create a new partnership with Turkey', he said, explaining that Turkey is a 'strategic partner' of the Union with regard to trade, the economy, energy and foreign policy, and that the EU and Turkey face the same security threats, making it necessary for them to step up their cooperation in the sphere of combating terrorism.
However, this 'new chapter' in EU-Turkey relations does not mean that the EU will forget divergences and differences, such as freedom of expression and human rights, said Frans Timmermans. 'Giving fresh impetus' to EU-Turkey relations equates, in the Vice-President's view, to infusing the accession negotiations with new energy. In addition to chapter 17, which will be formally opened during an intergovernmental conference on 14 December 2015, Frans Timmermans pointed out that the Commission has undertaken to prepare for the opening of the following chapters during the first quarter of 2016: 15 (energy), 23 (judiciary and fundamental rights), 24 (justice, freedom and security), 26 (education and culture) and 31 (foreign, security and defence policy). In his view, opening chapters 23 and 24 would be the best way to initiate the debate on human rights and compel Turkey to account for its actions.
With regard to the liberalisation of the visa system, which envisages removing visa obligations for Turkish citizens in the Schengen area by October 2016, Frans Timmermans pointed out that Turkey will have to meet the requirements, which will remain 'firm' and have to be applied in full. The Vice-President took the view that this process would have to be accompanied by 'substantial progress' regarding the readmission agreement between the EU and Turkey, which was signed in December 2013 and entered into force in October 2014. He welcomed the fact that Turkey was to implement the agreement in full as of June 2016, not October 2017.
The Vice-President stressed that the EUR 3 billion to be provided by the EU to Ankara was not destined for Turkey, but for the Syrian refugees, in order to improve their living conditions and offer them better health and education services.
He also called for the mechanism for resettling refugees outside Europe to be strengthened; in his view, this would reduce suffering, provide a fair distribution of responsibilities and clearly identify the individuals entering Europe. The mechanism would apply on a voluntary basis, explained Frans Timmermans.
In the view of MEP Manfred Weber (PPE), the summit had achieved some 'good results'. According to him, there would be debate about liberalising the visa system, particularly in view of the already high number of 'overstayers' in the EU (individuals who remain beyond the authorised period). He called for the protection of the EU's external borders, accusing Greece of not applying Schengen rules. Manfred Weber also called for support for other countries such as Lebanon and Jordan, which are doing 'a huge amount of work' in receiving refugees. He thanked the Commission for its 'clarity', regarding critical points, such as freedom of expression in Turkey, in its annual report published on 10 November 2015.
MEP Gianni Pittella (S&D) considered theagreement with Turkey to be 'an opportunity that should be taken'. 'Extending a hand to Turkey does not mean giving it a blank cheque', he said. In his view, Turkey's future lies within the EU. He believes that Ankara needs Europe, because this link enables it to avoid 'any authoritarian temptation' and 'the impoverishment of its democracy'. The Italian MEP said that the EU also needed Turkey, for security reasons and in order to successfully deal with the refugee crisis.
Gianni Pittella dwelt, however, on the importance of fundamental freedoms being respected in Turkey. 'The opening of new negotiations chapters with Ankara does not mean that the EU accepts everything Turkey wants', he said. 'This agreement must not become a kind of forced marriage, the outcome of which has already been decided on', he concluded.
While recognising the importance of cooperating with Turkey, Syed Kamall (ECR) nonetheless pointed out that such cooperation should not result in European problems being exported to Ankara. On Turkey's accession to the EU, Syed Kamall considered that this 'is not just around the corner', because too many European citizens would not accept Turkey within the EU. In his view, violations of fundamental rights in Turkey are another obstacle, as is the fact that it shares borders with Iran, Iraq and Syria.
MEP Guy Verhofstadt (ALDE) echoed the sentiments of Syed Kamall, considering that cooperation with Turkey should not result in 'exporting European problems'. 'Cooperation - yes; sub-contracting - no. Europe should put its own house in order and firstly take the decision, by the end of the year, to create a European coastguard and border guard service. The lack of progress on this issue is, quite simply, unacceptable', he said. He also considered it 'shameful', that 'the written conclusions of the summit' do not mention the situation regarding human rights and freedom of the press in Turkey.
Finally, Guy Verhofstadt said that Greece's border was the external Schengen border, and that if Greece was not able to manage it, it should accept European aid. 'You cannot belong to the Schengen area and at the same time refuse to manage your borders. That would lead to the Schengen area falling apart', said the MEP.
Takis Hadjigeorgiou (GUE/NGL) stressed the importance of Turkey's willingness to resolve the Cyprus issue if it wants to become a member of the EU.
MEP Rebecca Harms (Greens/ALE) wondered about the way in which the EU would ensure that the EUR 3 billion fund went to the refugees, and called for guarantees. In her view, the agreement was liable to result in Turkey preventing refugees from leaving, and putting them in jail. According to her, the country was not a trustworthy partner on refugee-related issues.