I am glad to address such a key contemporary challenge as Turkey’s EU accession process here at my alma mater, the University of Helsinki. To say that you have chosen the right date to discuss topical current affairs of EU-Turkey relations might qualify as the understatement of the week.
The seminar series on Turkey and Europe, organised jointly by the European Studies Centre of the University of Helsinki and the Finnish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, is an excellent initiative to tackle this formidable endeavour on the intellectual front. We need more of these.
Some years ago, Turkey rushed into the public debate in Europe when the EU began considering whether to begin accession negotiations with Turkey or not. The effect on public perception was similar to the landing of a giant flying saucer from outer space. Many commentators reacted as if Turkey was an alien completely unknown to Europe.
Yet in fact the EU’s relations with Turkey are almost as old as the creation of the European Community itself. As early as 1959, the EU began negotiations with Turkey on an Association Agreement, which became the first ever contractual arrangement with a third country, signed in November 1963 in Ankara – and hence called the "Ankara Agreement". The preamble and article 28 of this agreement clearly mention the prospect of Turkey eventually becoming a member of the European Community.
Since 1963, our relations have steadily developed, through more than 30 legal acts and agreements to further strengthen our bilateral links, most of them under the Ankara Agreement. Among the most significant is the establishment of the Customs Union in 1995, which has facilitated a fivefold increase in our bilateral trade.
In 1999, the EU Heads of State and governments decided here in Helsinki, under the Finnish Presidency, to grant Turkey the status of a candidate country – I quote – "destined to join the Union on the basis of the same criteria as applied to the other candidate States".
Finally, on 3 October 2005, the EU and Turkey agreed on the terms of the accession negotiations, which started officially the very same day. We also agreed that the objective of this process is accession.
To cut a long story short, Turkey has been part of the history of European integration for the past half century. Since 1949, Turkey has been a member of the Council of Europe, the first pan-European organisation created after World War II and the watchdog of democracy and human rights on our continent. Moreover, Turkey has actively defended Europe’s South-Eastern flank as a NATO member since 1952. Having a direct border with the Soviet Union, Turkey was the only European NATO ally that stood face-to-face with the Red Army and the Soviet Black Sea fleet.
I could add several other examples of recent and past history demonstrating the European orientation and the engagement of this country with the Union. Against such background, the endless controversies on the precise geographical location of Turkey, and whether the Bosphorus should be seen as a border of Europe, are frankly of little weight. There is no doubt that Turkey is part of Europe and has been part of our European political project from the beginning.
I am concerned, however, about the gap between overall public perception of this relationship and political decision-making about it. But this gap is not only a matter of “enlargement fatigue” or “the enlargement blues”. The debate about Turkey is also part of Europe having the blues about globalisation, the welfare state and unemployment. In other words, it stems rather from the global crisis of governance in our developed societies. I trust the distinguished researchers of the Helsinki University will actively study this matter, and I look forward to the findings of their research. But meanwhile, I will keep underlining Turkey's role and significance, which is a long-standing reality in Europe.
However, if those who have agreed on this principle continuously question Turkey's vocation to join the European Union, it also calls into question the credibility of our own commitments. That in turn seriously undermines the conditions and criteria for accession which the very same European Union defined unanimously, and thus damages the motivation for reforms in Turkey.
It creates a vicious circle of reversed commitment, weakened conditionality and stalled reforms. By keeping our word and sticking to the accession perspective, we can create a virtuous circle of credible commitment, rigorous conditionality and reinforced reforms. That means a more Europe-oriented Turkey. We must, at every stage, remain both firm and fair – not just firm.
The accession process with Turkey is a long-standing project, where the journey – Turkey's reform efforts – is as important as the final destination. It will have difficult moments, and call for difficult decisions. I trust that neither Turkey nor the European Union will lose sight of the key strategic value of the whole project; that is, peace, security, democracy and prosperity in Europe, from Helsinki to Lisbon, from Lisbon to Istanbul, and beyond.
Thank you for your attention.