BY 16 EU FOREIGN MINISTERS* euobserver.com
BRUSSELS - At a time when the EU faces economic challenges and continuing instability in the Middle East, our relationship with Turkey matters more than ever.
Last week saw the 50th EU/Turkey Association Council, which demonstrated the need to work together to promote our shared prosperity, security and values.
In these tough economic times, increasing trade with Turkey offers opportunities for EU businesses. With a GDP growth rate of 8.5 percent last year, the second fastest in the G20 after China, Turkey is now the EU’s fifth largest export market.
Turkish entrepreneurs in Europe run businesses worth €40 billion, employing half a million people. In sectors like aviation, automobiles and electronics, our economies are increasingly integrated.
Turkey is well placed to become an energy hub, with both sides benefiting from projects to build the necessary infrastructure, including development of the Southern gas corridor.
The commercial relationship is strong, but could be stronger. While EU-Turkey trade has grown steadily, Turkey's trade with other regions has grown even faster.
This is partly a symptom of the wider shift of economic power to Asia, but also reflects problems with the EU-Turkey customs union and other trade restrictions that prevent our commercial relationship from achieving its full potential.
Removing these restrictions should form an important part of wider efforts to boost economic growth, building on the recent G20 Summit and on the European Council later this week.
We welcome the very recent agreement on a path towards visa liberalisation, linked to broader co-operation on migration. This has the potential to promote trade, combat illegal immigration and support wider people to people contacts.
Here, signature by Turkey of the EU-Turkey readmission agreement would be a crucial step on the way towards fulfilling Turkish citizens' aspirations to travel more freely in Europe.
As the dialogue between the EU and Turkey on mobility and security grows, we hope to see further concrete results. In this framework, we hope Turkey will extend visa free travel to EU member states.
Reinforcing collective security
The last few months have again demonstrated Turkey's importance in supporting stability in the Middle East and beyond. Istanbul has hosted a series of key meetings to discuss Syria, Iran, Somalia and terrorism.
Turkey is playing a critical and constructive role in increasing international pressure on the regime of President Bashar Assad in Syria and is a crucial partner in building security in Afghanistan.
Turkey offers its neighbours an inspirational example of a secular and democratic country with a growing middle class. At the same time, the EU remains the largest trading partner for most of these countries and a vital source of investment and ideas.
The many priorities the EU and Turkey share in this region make it essential that we continue to deepen our co-operation. Our meeting with foreign minister Davutoglu in the margins of the March foreign affairs council, initiated by EU foreign affairs head Cathy Ashton, was a good first step.
We should build on this through further dialogue on regional issues like the Western Balkans and Southern Caucasus and joint projects in the Middle East and North Africa. The EU and Turkey should be partners in shaping events. Working together we can achieve more and send a stronger message to encourage transformation.
Sharing common values
Turkey’s ability to inspire reform in its neighbourhood is linked to its EU accession process. The Turkey of today is radically transformed from the country that applied to join the EU a quarter of a century ago.
Just as the EU helped consolidate democracy across Central Europe and continues to promote democracy in Eastern Europe, the accession process has played a powerful role in supporting Turkey's reforms in areas such as civilian control of the military and the independence of the judiciary.
Significant results have been achieved but, as Turkey itself recognises, reform remains a work in progress. Improvements are needed in the areas of freedom of expression, women’s rights and protection of minorities.
The work on a new constitution presents a crucial opportunity to address such issues.
We encourage Turkey to maintain an inclusive constitutional reform process and welcome the recent discussions between Prime Minister Erdogan and opposition leader Kilicdaroglu, including on how to address the Kurdish issue and the menace of PKK terrorism.
Turkey's constructive contribution to a Cyprus settlement and its willingness to open its ports and airports to Cypriot vessels remain key. Progress is also needed on the important issue of EU-Nato co-operation, where we encourage Turkey to show flexibility.
Reinvigorating the accession process
Just as Turkey must meet its obligations to the EU, so the EU must meet its obligations to Turkey.
Commissioner Stefan Fuele has led the way with his "positive agenda" for EU-Turkey relations, designed to support the accession process and strengthen practical co-operation. He has our full support.
We represent countries that have not always shared the same view on how to realise Turkey's European perspective.
But we are united in seeing the accession process as a vital framework for cooperation and a powerful stimulus for reform.
Injecting new momentum into the process will benefit both the EU and Turkey. That must be our ambition in the months ahead.
*Nikolay Mladenov, Urmas Paet, Erkki Tuomioja, Guido Westerwelle, Janos Martonyi, Giulio Terzi di Sant'agata, Edgars Rinkevics, Audronius Azubalis, Radoslaw Sikorski, Paulo Portas, Andrei Marga, Miroslav Lajcak, Karl Erjavec, Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo, Carl Bildt and William Hague are the Foreign Ministers of Bulgaria, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden and the UK