Statement by Minister of State Noel Treacy at the Oireachtas Joint Committee on European Affairs, 15 December 2004
I am very grateful for this opportunity to meet again with the Committee to discuss the European Council decision on the question of accession negotiations with Turkey. We met last week in preparation for the meeting of the General Affairs and External Relations Council which I attended in Brussels on Monday. At the Council, Ministers continued the preparatory work for the European Council decision. Major issues remain under consideration, and discussions are continuing between the Member States on the central elements of the decision to be taken on 17 December.
I would like again to congratulate the Committee on taking the initiative to visit Turkey in November. You undertook an impressive series of meetings with Government and political representatives, NGOs, and representatives of minority communities, Christian churches, businessmen, journalists and academics. I warmly welcome the report which you have presented today.
The decision to be taken by the European Council this week is a crucial one for the future of the European Union, and for Turkey. As you have pointed out, it is essential that there be an informed public debate across the Union – and indeed among the public in Turkey – on the full implications of the decision. In recent months, there has been an intense debate on the issue across the European Union. Perhaps this public debate should have started earlier, but it is important that it continue, in a rational and informed manner, throughout the negotiating period which may lie ahead.
In participating in the European Council decision, which must be taken by unanimity, the Taoiseach's position is strengthened by having the considered input of this Committee of the Oireachtas. I can assure you that your comprehensive report, which sets out in impressive detail the views of the democratically-elected representatives of the people of Ireland, will make a major contribution to the Government's final preparations for Ireland's participation in the European Council decision on Turkey.
As your report sets out, there has been a series of developments since the early 1960s which has brought us to this point in relations between the EU and Turkey. Successive European Councils, since December 1999, have confirmed that Turkey is a candidate for membership, on the basis of the same criteria applied to all candidate states. The EU has also given a clear commitment that if this week's European Council decides that Turkey fulfils the Copenhagen political criteria, accession negotiations will be opened.
As the Committee is aware, the Government have welcomed the Report and Recommendation presented by the Commission on 6 October. They provide the basis for the European Council decision. The Commission has concluded that Turkey sufficiently fulfils the political criteria to enable the opening of accession negotiations. As I stated when we met last week, I believe that if the conditions are in place, there is a good likelihood that agreement will be reached to open negotiations in the second half of 2005. Debate continues as to the precise nature of these negotiations. The Government believe that the EU should adhere to its commitment to open accession negotiations, that is, negotiations with the objective of full membership, if Turkey meets the requirements for membership. The reality is that the negotiations will be lengthy – perhaps lasting for 10 to 15 years. They will be complex, and, as with any negotiating process, the outcome cannot be guaranteed in advance. They will have wide-ranging implications for the Union and for Turkey, and agreement will be necessary in advance of the negotiations on a detailed negotiating framework.
The Commission, which will propose the framework for consideration by Member States, has made it clear in its recommendation that the accession negotiations will take place in the framework of an Intergovernmental Conference where decisions require unanimity, with the full participation of all EU Member States. It has also proposed that, in developing the negotiating framework for negotiations with Turkey, consideration may have to be given to difficult issues such as long transition periods, specific arrangements in areas like structural policies and agriculture, and perhaps even permanent safeguards on the free movement of workers.
As the members of the Committee will have seen on their visit to Turkey, and as they will have heard from representatives of human rights organisations and others, huge progress has been made over the past three years in legislating for wide-ranging human rights and administrative reforms. The Government of Prime Minister Erdogan is transforming the country, in the interests of the Turkish people. Full implementation of reforms, however, remains the key to progress. The pace of reform will determine the pace of any accession negotiations. I expect the European Council to decide that detailed monitoring of the reform process must continue, in order to ensure the irreversibility of the process. Particular attention must be given to the consolidation and development of the zero tolerance policy on torture and ill-treatment, and of reforms guaranteeing freedom of expression, freedom of religion, women's rights, trade union rights and the rights of minorities, including, the Kurdish population.
I would like, finally, to refer to the important issue of Cyprus. The EU has expressed its appreciation for the support which Turkey gave to the Plan for a comprehensive settlement of the Cyprus problem submitted by the UN Secretary General earlier this year, following negotiations during Ireland's EU Presidency. The search for a comprehensive settlement will remain a UN-led process.
In the absence of an agreed comprehensive settlement, Turkey maintains its policy of not recognising the Republic of Cyprus. Turkey now hopes to enter into negotiations leading to full membership of the European Union, of which Cyprus is a full member. It is the view of the Irish Government – and I note that it is the view of this Committee – that Turkey should move now to ensure that a process begins on the normalisation of relations with Cyprus. Turkey would make a vital contribution to the decision to be taken by the European Council this week if it were to respond to the request of the June European Council and announce its decision to sign the Protocol adapting the Ankara Agreement, on the customs union, to take account of the enlargement of the EU on 1 May. We strongly encourage the Turkish Government to do so.
I hope that the conditions will be in place for a positive decision by the European Council this week, in the interests of the citizens of the European Union and of the people of Turkey. The Government are deeply grateful for the policy input of the Oireachtas Joint Committee. And I look forward to working closely with the Committee as the process of building closer relations between the EU and Turkey proceeds over the coming year and beyond.