Dr Charles Tannock

Member of the European Parliament for London

Turkish accession "will not be automatic"

Agence Europe - 6 October 2004

Commissioner-designate for enlargement Olli Rehn kicked off his hearing on Monday at the European Parliament Committee on Foreign Affairs by saying he came from an outlying region of the EU, Eastern Finland, but feels that he is "politically and mentally" part of the core of Europe and that it is a privilege for him to take part in this phase of European construction. The youngest member of the future Barroso Commission (42) showed during over three hours of dialogue with MEPs how familiar he is with the workings of the European institutions that he first became acquainted with as MEP (in 1995 and 1996) and then as Chef de Cabinet for Commissioner Liikanen.

Untiringly and pleasantly, he answered questions put to him by MEPs on Turkey, just two days from the Prodi Commission's recommendation (of which he is part as Commissioner for Enterprise and the Information Society), but also questions on Cyprus, Bulgaria and Romania, the Western Balkans and the new "neighbour countries". Each candidate country for accession will be judged according to its own merits, he repeated on several occasions, insisting on respect of human rights and European values. Europe is not just a question of geography but also of values and culture, Mr Rehn stressed. British Liberal Baroness Nicholson asked whether the new enlargement should wait for the Constitution to take effect with its provisions on human rights, but Olli Rehn recalled that, for the European Commission, one must separate the enlargement process from that of ratification of the Constitution, even if "in real politics, the Heads of State and Government see an interface" between the two (an obvious allusion to the debate under way mainly in France on ratification of the Constitution and opening of talks for Turkey's EU membership).

On the subject of Turkey, the chairman of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, Elmar Brok, had protested from the outset of the hearing saying that everyone already has the Commission's report except MEPS. He wonders, therefore, what use next Wednesday's "show" at the Conference of Presidents will be. He has written to Commissioner Verheugen on this point, the CDU member said.

As a member of the current College of Commissioners, he will consider Turkey's request for membership while taking the European Community's historic commitments into account as well as the Parliament's assessment. It will not be an easy decision, Olli Rehn says in the knowledge that public opinion is divided on the matter. Speaking in French, Mr Rehn commented that, since the European Council in December 1999 in Helsinki, Ankara has had candidate status and Turkey's European prospects must be maintained in order to pursue the implementation of reforms in progress and those to come. He also said one should not forget another question raised in Helsinki - that of the Union's ability to assimilate new members to maintain the impetus of European integration to the service of the general interest of EU and candidate countries. Is Turkey European? it was asked. Mr Rehn said this question had been answered "more than forty years ago". He cited Commission President Walter Hallstein in 1963 who said Turkey is "part of Europe" with which it will establish "relations (…) governed by the idea of evolution".

As a member of the Barroso Commission, will you feel linked by the recommendation of the Prodi Commission with regards Turkey? To this question put by Partido popular member José Ignacio Salafranca, Mr Rehn answered (in English as during a large part of his intervention) that his judgement will mainly depend on Turkey's progress when it comes to human rights and civil liberties. Turkey, he said, has done a great deal over the past two years but, for example, there are still cases of torture and obstacles to freedom of expression, which is why, if the European Council in December decides to open accession negotiations, it will definitely be necessary to have "a strong monitoring mechanism" for human rights. This, he added Charles Tannock, should be included in the Commission recommendation (in response to British Conservative Charles Tannock, Mr Rehn noted that Turkey has begun to systematically crack down on torture and that 2,500 suspected cases of torture have been taken before the courts). Also, Mr Rehn took a stance in favour of transition periods and a "permanent safeguard clause" concerning free movement of workers. In response to Bastiaan Belder (Independence and Democracy, NL), who expressed concern about religious freedom in Turkey, Mr Rehn answered that progress has been made concerning the right to practice one's own faith individually but much remains to be done, for example regarding the legal status of churches and the training of priests. The Union "is not a one faith community", Mr Rehn exclaimed, in response to Georgios Karatzaferis, Greek member of the Independence and Democracy Group (who also asked what would happen if Syria and Libya asked to join). Turkey must recognise the "massacre of the Armenians", Ari Vatanen (EPP-ED, Finland) exclaimed, to which Mr Rehn explained that this is not one of the political criteria for accession. He did say, however, that it would be useful to have this problem tackled, perhaps initially at an academic level.

How long will negotiations with Turkey take? asked German Liberal Alexander Graf Lamsdorff, who was concerned by declarations of Prime Minister Erdogan who, in his interview with Der Spiegel, was talking not of fifteen years but of "five, seven or ten years" (see yesterday's EUROPE, p.4). What counts is the contents of the negotiations, not the timetable, said Mr Rehn. Will the end of the negotiations be "open-ended", as some people hope? The MEPs have tried in vain to get a clear answer out of the Commissioner designate. Answering Dutch Green Joost Lagendijk, Mr Rehn said: I do not believe in "historical determinism", and in a way all negotiations are open-ended, as there is "no automatic ticket to the destination", and "no guarantees on the results". At the same time, he said: "We are a community of commitments, we must stick to our word". On a lighter note, he said: if I was the manager of a second-division football team that had the chance of being promoted, what would the board say if I told the players: "you'll never make it"? They would "sack the manager!". Mr Rehn replied in the same manner to the Finn Willa Itäla (EPP-ED), who deduced from this that he was in favour of negotiations with an open-ended outcome…

How can the EU negotiate the accession of a country which is occupying 38% of the territory of one of its Member States, Cyprus?, asked Athanasios Pafilis (GUE/NGL, Greece), who feels that the Annan Plan for the unification of the island was a "retrograde step". It is the Member States which are negotiating, pointed out Mr Rehn, stressing: the European Commission supported the Annan Plan and the Turkish Cypriots did too. It would be unfair to punish them, said the Commissioner designate, noting: that was the past, we must now turn to the future. Some are talking about "North Cyprus", others of "the northern part of Cyprus", and there is a "big difference" between them, said Vytautas Landsbergis (EPP-ED, Lithuania), but Olli Rehn has no wish to fan the flames: the definition is important, but a quarrel on the subject does not seem likely to help the situation. What we should be doing is trying to facilitate relations between the two communities, and continue to work for a settlement for the island. To Panagiotis Beglitis, a Greek Socialist who pointed out that according to the Council's legal services, the legal basis used by the Commission (Article 133 of the treaty) for its proposal on aid to Turkish Cypriots was not the right one, Mr Rehn replied; according to the Commission's legal services, it is.

Mr Rehn was also asked about Bulgaria and especially Romania- notably by French Socialist Pierre Moscovici (whose country of origin it is), Baroness Nicholson and André Brie (GUE/NGL, Germany). Mr Rehn said that the Commission would do all in its power to allow both countries to join within the planned timetable, even though it will not hesitate to invoke a safeguard clause allowing accession to be postponed for a year if there is any stagnation in the reforms (this clause was referred to in the Commission's report of this Wednesday, which forecasts Romanian and Bulgarian accession on 1 January 2007: see above).

As for the western Balkans, responding in particular to Austrian Social-Democrat Hannes Swoboda and his compatriot Ursula Stenzel (EPP-ED), Mr Rehn, speaking Finnish, described Croatia as a "figurehead". Several MEPs expressed concerns at ethnic tension subsisting in the region, and the German Green Angelika Beer wondered about Kosovo's prospects. I intend to visit Kosovo to take stock of the situation "with my own eyes", but I did not want to announce this before the hearings, said Mr Rehn. Libor Rouckek (PES, Czech Republic) voiced concerns about the fate of Albania, Macedonia and Montenegro.

Many MEPs raised the issue of the European perspectives of the "new neighbourhood" countries. This was true of Toomas Hendrik Ilves (PES, Estonia), or the Pole Janusz Onyszkiewicz (ALDE), Anna Elzbieta Fotyga (UEN) and Marek Aleksander Czarnecki (independent) who asked whether Ukraine had any prospects of joining. Ukraine is "a deeply European State", said Mr Rehn, but promised nothing. The same answer was given to Antonio Tajani (Forza Italia) who asked about the accession possibilities of Russia and Israel.

Respect for minorities' rights is one of our criteria, Olli Rehn told several MEPs, including the Hungarians Csaba Snador Tabadji (PES) and Szent-Ivanyi (ALDE). On the situation for the Roma, the Commissioner designate said that there was a large Roma community in his own region, and that over the last thirty years, their situation had improved considerably. But "it's a long road", he admitted.