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‘We are ready to open any accession chapter’

Interview - March 30, 2015

As a former diplomat who is well liked and respected in Brussels, Turkey’s Minister for EU Affairs Volkan Bozkir is the new face of the rapidly rising nation’s application for EU membership. Mr Bozkir has high hopes for Turkey’s goal of becoming a full EU member by 2023, and he says his country is ready to open any chapter in the process if the EU is also willing


Since being appointed last year you have visited several EU capitals, Prime Minister Davutoðlu visited Brussels and a high level delegation of three European Commissioners from Brussels has visited Ankara. What is your assessment of how Turkey’s attempts to stimulate its application under your leadership are being received in European capitals?

This process is actually a very long one, it goes back to 50 years. Many people ask, "why have you been in this process for so long?" It shows how stubborn, how determined, how tolerant, and how patient Turkey is in its efforts to reach the target of becoming a member of the European Union.

When you look at Turkey’s economy figures when we first started exploring membership, we had per capita income of $400 per year; seven universities; tourism revenues around of $8 million, and a trade volume of about $1 billion.  EU membership was seen as something that would bring economic benefits and welfare to Turkey.

But when you look at today, Turkey’s national income is $820 billion; our per capita income is $11,500; we have 185 universities, exports worth $170 billion, over $30 billion in annual tourism revenues, and Turkey's economy is stronger than those of 22 EU member countries. It is not about economic advantages anymore, we have already reached the living standards of many EU countries. EU accession is now about reaching the values and standards of the European Union in democracy, human rights, freedom of expression, environment, food security, education, and all the other chapters. That's why we are pushing forward with the accession process.

It was thanks to the EU process that Turkey was able to make so many democratic reforms, because public opinion was behind it, and it still is. Public opinion has never been against EU membership by more than 8% or 9%. Opinion polls show that, in 2013, 50% of Turkish people supported EU membership, now it's 72%. There was also a more difficult question asked, which was: "will the European Union allow Turkey to become member?" The percentage of those who thought it would grew from 30% to 45%.

We will continue this process no matter what. It's a win-win situation. Many things have changed and now Turkey and the EU need each other more than ever. Perhaps one may think that the EU was a Christian club in the early days, but today's realities and difficulties we are confronting don’t allow it to be that simple anymore. The difficulties we are facing make it absolutely necessary that different cultures come together and face our problems. In that respect Turkey could make a valuable cultural contribution.

Furthermore, we will bring a young, skilled and hardworking population to the aging EU. I don't think the EU can afford to say no to Turkey.

You mentioned opinion polls. Why do you think there is this large discrepancy between the percentage of Turkish people who support EU accession and the percentage who believe it will actually happen? Do they lack faith in the European Union’s attitude towards Turkey or do they lack faith in your government’s capacity to deliver?

I think this discrepancy is natural when, after 50 years, the result is not obtained. It's good that it came up from 30% to 45%, it shows that there are positive movements which are convincing some people, and with positive steps I think we will be able to increase it even more. Of course, not being able to officially open chapters looks negative for people. For eight years we worked very hard. The official situation is we opened 14 chapters and closed only one chapter, but the real picture is that we opened 28 chapters and closed 14 chapters, because we did all the necessary work even though it is not officially registered. This is important. By doing that, first of all, we didn't lose time, which we could have lost if we had waited for the official opening of the chapters.

Secondly, we didn't lose the people who are working for the EU process. If we had said: "now go and rest, we will call you when the chapters officially open", when they came back they would not have been the same people.

Thirdly, we increased Turkey's level and standards in all the open chapters. And fourthly, if political obstacles are removed, today we are able to open any chapter within two months. If you put the numbers of all unopened chapters in a sack and draw a number, we could open it in two months. For Turkey, opening chapters is not a problem, but there are political difficulties on the EU side.

The people who believe that the EU will allow Turkey to become a member are seeing the progress Turkey is making, because becoming member to the EU is different than becoming member to international organizations like UN or NATO. This is something which affects your everyday life. You feel it in your standards, in the air you breathe, the water you drink, the food you eat. You feel it in democracy; you feel your freedoms. That's why, even without chapters being opened, many people feel the EU is already in their everyday lives. It's like inflation. If inflation is 100% and the government says it's 10%, nobody will believe it, they will feel it in their pockets. It's the same thing happening here, they feel that things are moving positively for Turkey, and that's why the support is there.

Despite your efforts and the launch last year of Turkey’s action plan for EU accession, there has been a perception in some quarters that Turkey has been shifting direction away from the EU in recent years towards the East. What is your response to this?

Perhaps in the last three years or so, the communication between Turkey and Europe was worse than previous years. For example, during that period the President of the Commission, Jose Barroso, and the president of the Council, Herman Van Rompuy, came to Turkey only once in eight years. We were lacking communication, our leaders didn't meet much. For that reason, maybe people living in the EU were developing wrong perceptions based on what they read or what they saw on television, instead of receiving first-hand information from the Turks. I'm sure that in the last few months nothing has changed in the way Turkey looks at the EU, but we've made it absolutely clear that when we're looking at 2023, we're talking about a new Turkey. Membership to the EU is a part of this, and a person like myself, who has worked very hard for the EU process, was appointed as EU Minister. We have a new strategy and we are making real progress, so I think that, given the opportunity to correct information, this perception will evaporate.

Perhaps there was a misconception in some countries that Turkey was looking to other directions, but the explanation is that Turkey adapts itself to the new rules of the game in the globalized world. Turkey tries to enlarge its presence in Latin America, in Africa, in Asian countries, not as an alternative to the EU or the western groups, but as a complementary dimension. If Turkey develops its links with the Islamic world, for example, it will give more strength to the EU, because of its experience and connections there. Many European countries are doing the same. As Turkey grew in economic strength, it became necessary to enlarge its connections in the world. This did not mean it turned its back on the EU.

One of the major targets of the G20 is to return global trade growth rates to pre-crisis levels. Turkey’s main trading partner remains the EU, with which you have enjoyed a customs union for the past 20 years. Yet Turkey faces exclusion from the proposed TTIP between the EU and the US. What will be the consequences for Turkey if it is excluded from this agreement and do you foresee any solution which could be agreeable to all parties?

Turkey is the only country who joined the Customs Union before becoming a member of the EU. All the other countries preferred to do it after becoming members, because it's not an easy task, there are a lot of difficulties in the early years. You're facing competition with the giants in trade and European economies, and you lose a lot. Turkey also lost on paper, some people say $30 billion, some say $70 billion. But I don't subscribe to this view because it gave Turkey the possibility of restructuring its economy and its industrial capacities, and now we're talking about $150 billion worth of trade, where Turkey is exporting 14,800 different items to the EU. Around 45% of this trade is Turkish exports, so it is a healthy situation which actually forced Turkey to change its previous structures.

We are happy with what we have, but the problem is that when we joined the Customs Union, one item was perhaps forgotten or Turkey was unable to include it in the Customs Union decision. Therefore, if the EU signs a free trade agreement with a third country, Turkey doesn't join it right from the beginning. So until we also sign a free trade agreement with that country, there's a loss for Turkey. It happened with South Korea, we lost 8% of the market. Also countries like Mexico and Algeria. With South Korea and Mexico we signed a free trade agreement and the damage was prevented, but with Algeria we couldn't. For ten years, Algerian products have been coming into Turkey with zero customs, while we don't benefit from the same for our products.

With TTIP a similar thing is happening. Actually, TTIP is more than just a free trade agreement, it is one of the most visionary projects in the last decade or so, and I think both sides will benefit. Trade, cooperation… many things are coming together, and I'm very much excited that this is happening. But if we look only at the trade side, if the U.S. signed this TTIP, Turkey would lose a lot, around $5 billion annually. A lot of jobs would be lost, American products will come to Turkey without customs, and we cannot afford that unless Turkish products have the same privilege in the US. We're proposing a very simple solution, which is that if the EU signs this agreement, add an article saying that it will be implemented to Customs Union countries as well. That would solve our problem, and there's nothing to worry about if that's added.

Meanwhile we are also starting negotiations to upgrade the Customs Union, because services, agriculture and public procurement are not there yet, so we will try to include them. If we do that, then we will talk about a trade volume of $300 billion, which really is an important figure for both sides. So instead of harming this wonderfully functioning relationship, just a small sentence will solve the problem. If we are faster than the TTIP negotiations, then we will add this missing article to our Customs Union, so that it would be implemented to the TTIP as well.