MADRID – Just five months ago, Osama bin Laden was alive, Hosni Mubarak was firmly in control in Egypt, and Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali ruled Tunisia with an iron hand. Today, popular rebellion and political change have spread throughout the region. We have witnessed brutal repression of protests in Syria and Yemen, Saudi troops crossing into Bahrain, and an ongoing battle for Libya.
For Europe, the “Arab Spring” should refocus attention on an issue largely ignored in recent months: the benefits of Turkey’s full membership in the European Union. Given the tremendous opportunities present in the current circumstances, the advantages for Europe of Turkey’s accession should be obvious.
With Recep Tayyip Erdoğan now elected to another term as Turkey’s prime minister, and with Poland, a country well acquainted with the importance of Europe’s strategic position in the world, assuming the EU presidency at the end of the month, now is a time for the Union and Turkey to “reset” their negotiations over Turkish membership.
The good that Turkey can bring to Europe was visible even before the “Arab Spring.” Europe is, by definition, culturally diverse, so diversity is the EU’s destiny. And, if Europe is to become an active global player, rather than a museum, it needs the fresh perspective and energy of the people of Turkey.
Europe today is both larger and different compared to the Europe of 1999, when Turkey was invited to begin the accession process. It is also experiencing a profound economic crisis, which erupted around the same time that the Lisbon Treaty – aimed at accommodating EU enlargement – was finally approved. Had the treaty been approved in 2005 as intended, it would have been in place for six years, and the strain placed by the crisis on EU economic governance – so visible in the eurozone’s recent problems – would have been much more manageable.
But the EU always faces problems, resolves them, and moves on. Today, we don’t have a treasury, but we are about to have something similar. Similarly, the European Central Bank has capacities today that no one imagined in, say, 1997.
A major challenge that Europe must still face is migration, which will only become a bigger problem over time. Between now and 2050, Europe’s workforce will decrease by 70 million. Maintaining our economy requires migration and open EU borders – and facing down the populist movements in Europe that would shun “outsiders.”
Today’s Turkey has also changed dramatically since 1999, both politically and economically, and this has much to do with the EU accession process. Indeed, without the attraction of the EU – its “soft” power – such changes would not have occurred.
Economically, Turkey is now in the G-20 – and playing an effective role there. And, politically, Turkey has emerged as a regional leader, a role that it takes extremely seriously.
With just-concluded parliamentary elections, and a new constitution to be approved, Turkey is approaching an epochal moment. I was a member of the Spanish Constitutional Commission that wrote the Spanish constitution in 1975 and 1976, following the death of Franco, so I know what it is to move from dictatorship to democracy – and how important it is that a constitution be framed by consensus.
The EU-Turkey relationship began with an association agreement signed in 1963. Now the accession negotiations have started, and 35 “chapters” – covering everything from agriculture to energy, competition, environment, employment, social policy, and beyond – must be opened. We have already opened 19 chapters – fewer than we would like. But the real problem is that we have closed only one, and, worse, the pace of negotiations has slowed. In fact, in the second half of 2010, nothing happened. I hope that meaningful progress comes in 2011.
Turkey and the EU need each other. The EU now accounts for 75% of foreign investment in Turkey and roughly half its exports and inward tourism. Likewise, Europe’s energy security depends on cooperation with Turkey on transit of oil and natural gas from Central Asia and the Middle East.
We need each other politically as well. Turkey’s neighborhood is our neighborhood; its problems are our problems. The security benefits and strategic advantages for the EU with Turkey as a member would be many, starting with the relationship between the EU and NATO, of which Turkey has long been a member.
Likewise, the EU’s involvement in today’s problems in the Mediterranean region would be much easier in concert with Turkey. In Bosnia-Herzegovina, EU-Turkey cooperation is fundamental to achieving a durable solution.
In 1999, Turkey did not want to become an accession candidate, because its leaders thought that the conditions would be too tough. I was there; I talked to Prime Minister Bülent Ecevit at midnight, then to President Süleyman Demirel. And, two days later, Ecevit was in Helsinki to declare formally Turkey’s wish to become an EU member. And we said: Turkey will be an EU member. I supported the signature of that document; I would do the same today.
In these times, difficult and unpredictable but full of hope, the world needs Turkey and the EU to work together. That does not mean meeting every now and then to decide how to handle a certain problem. It means something much deeper and well defined. It means Turkey’s admission to the EU. That is my dream, and I will continue to fight to make it a reality.