For the first time in two years, a new chapter of Turkey's accession negotiations has been opened. That was what Jean Asselborn, the Luxembourg Minister for Foreign and European Affairs, announced on 14 December 2015, following an intergovernmental conference between the European Union (EU) and Turkey which took place in Brussels on the sidelines of the General Affairs Council (GAC) held on 15 December. The conference opened negotiations on Chapter 17, on 'Economic and Monetary Policy' bringing the number of chapters opened to 15 out of 35.
Turkey was represented by its Deputy Prime Minister, Mehmet Şimşek, together with the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu and the Minister for European Affairs and Chief Negotiator Volkan Bozkır.
The accession negotiations, which have been running since 3 October 2005, 'are continuing to progress', noted Jean Asselborn, who chaired the conference. He welcomed the fact that a 'fresh impetus had been given to this process' thanks to this opening that fits 'within the context of re-energising the accession process', endorsed by the EU-Turkey Summit on 29 November 2015. Chapter 17 covers specific rules guaranteeing the independance of central banks, prohibiting the direct financing of the public sector by central banks and prohibiting the privileged access of the public sector to financial institutions, explained the Minister.
'It does not mean, of course, that we are opening the doors of the Eurozone to Turkey', stated the Minister, explaining that the chapter only committed candidate countries to implement the criteria set out by the Treaty in order to be able to adopt the euro in due course, once they had joined the European Union.
'The European Union needs a strategic partner like Turkey on a good number of international issues', stressed the Minister, citing examples like migration, counter-terrorism, energy security, the economy, trade and the climate.
The Minister welcomed the resumption of summits between the European Union and Turkey at the end of November, a practice which he believes had 'unfortunately fallen by the wayside'. 'Turkey is far too important a partner for the stability and security of the European continent to not meet with regularly and at the highest level', said the Minister. Jean Asselborn also welcomed the re-energising of political dialogue at all levels.
Luxembourg, which has 'accompanied Turkey along the path towards joining the European Union from the start', can only welcome this development, stressed Jean Asselborn, recalling that it was in Luxembourg in 1997 that the European Council had confirmed Turkey's eligibility to join the EU and that it was under the Luxembourg Presidency of the Council in 2005 that the European Commission laid the groundwork for opening the accession negotiations.
Under the current Luxembourg Presidency, eight high-level ministerial meetings have taken place, a 'record number' which 'goes to show our sincere willingness to familiarise Turkey with the EU's decision-making processes', said Jean Asselborn who was in Turkey on 18 September 2015. Furthermore, Turkey was invited to the high-level Conference on the migratory route across the Western Balkans and the Eastern Mediterranean, held in Luxembourg on 8 October.
Johannes Hahn, the Commissioner for European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations, in turn described it as a 'clear signal' that the accession process is moving forward. The opening of Chapter 17, 'which is important for Turkey's sustainable economic development', will especially benefit the Turkish economy and Turkish taxpayers, noted the Commissioner. Johannes Hahn commended Turkey's efforts since 2002 in managing public debt which he says had fallen from 70 % to 30 % of GDP. He nevertheless stressed that Turkey 'can still achieve more towards further alignment with the European Union's acquis' and by further reinforcing the independence of the Central Bank of Turkey. These reforms will bolster Turkey's credibility as a stable destination, stated the Commissioner.
Preparations regarding the start of negotiations for upgrading the Customs Union with Turkey, which has existed since 1995, will be advanced, declared Johannes Hahn. He called on Turkey to address the 'important shortcomings' raised by the annual report on Turkey's state of progress published by the European Commission on 10 November 2015. 'We hope that the new Turkish government will be eager to drive a set of comprehensive reforms, particularly in areas such as freedom of speech and the press as well as the independence of the judiciary.
On the Turkish side, the Minister for European Affairs and Chief Negotiator Volkan Bozkır described the opening of Chapter 17 as an indicator for the revitalisation of Turkey's EU accession, which he believes to be in the common interest of all parties. He expressed the desire that the accession process should be conducted in an 'active and credible' manner, and that the other chapters, vital for Turkey, should be opened. The EU-Turkey Summit of 29 November 2015 is, for him, a sign that a new phase has begun, with the decisions that had been taken: cooperating in the fight against terrorism, working together on accommodating refugees and updating and upgrading the Customs Union.
The Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Şimşek believed that the relationship between the EU and Turkey was essential and that the entire region stood to profit from it. He listed three things: firstly that Turkey is firmly anchored in Europe, next, that it is deeply committed to making huge efforts to becoming a full member of the EU, and finally that Turkey was convinced that the quality of a State's institutions was conducive to strong economic growth. In the context of Chapter 17, Mehmet Şimşek highlighted the future independence of Turkey's central bank, a balanced budget and stable monetary policy. The process of closer ties with the EU has already led to both real and nominal convergence: if GDP per capita in Turkey was only one third of that of the average GDP per capita in the EU in 1999, now it is 45 %.
Quizzed on the journalists imprisoned in Turkey, the ministers replied each in turn.Mehmet Şimşek stated that out of respect for the State of Law, he did not wish to comment on an active legal case, adding furthermore that the EU was not in the habit of negotiating EU membership with rogue States. Jean Asselborn outlined the Copenhagen principles to be able to join the EU: respecting the State of Law and fundamental rights, including the right of association and freedom of expression.
As to the Syrian refugees in Turkey, the Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu explained that the latter had access to the Turkish health system, that new school classes would be created, in particular with the support of the EU, and that work permits would be issued to refugees. According to the Minister, the resettlement of refugees from Turkey in the EU is dependant on EU Member States. He asked the Member States not to be 'too choosy' in only wanting to accept the best educated refugees. He stated that the Syrian refugees cost Turkey 8 billion euros. The 3 billion in EU aid would not diminish this effort, but would go directly to the refugees to help them where they live.