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Why Turkey is implementing the acquis

Tayip Recep Erdogan and José Manuel Barroso. Photo: European Commission
Tayip Recep Erdogan and José Manuel Barroso. Photo: European Commission

The continuous adoption of EU legislation and introduction of EU standards by Turkey has not gone unnoticed. Since 2005, the Commission's yearly Progress Reports have charted Turkey's track record in all policy areas covered by the negotiation process, independent of the pace of the negotiations themselves. The fact that Turkey has delivered reforms in chapters that have not yet been opened is clearly recognised in the Commission's most recent 2010 Progress Report. Of the 23 chapters where the report cites "some" or "good" progress, 11 are actually blocked.

Just as nothing impedes Turkey from making headway on chapters that have been blocked, nothing impedes the Commission from facilitating such progress. Despite the crisis over the opening of chapters, the EU has significantly increased the resources devoted to its relations with Turkey. The EU Delegation in Ankara is now the biggest of the EU's 130 delegations and offices around the world, with 137 staff. The EU has also raised its yearly financial support for the Turkish reform process in all areas – even where chapters are blocked – to EUR 900 million in 2012. Including past commitments, the EU is currently supporting the implementation of more than 250 projects in Turkey, worth a total amount of about EUR 2 billion. EU pre-accession assistance is likely to increase further in the years to come, whether or not any new chapters are opened.  The money has certainly not gone to waste. Although it has criticized the lack of a "mechanism to ensure that the projects represented the best use of EU financial resources in achieving the accession partnership priorities," the European Court of Auditors has noted that "the audited projects mostly achieved their planned outputs and the results were likely to be sustained."

Graph: IPA funds for Turkey in 2007-2012 (in million Euros) (website of the EU Delegation in Ankara)

Funds drawn from the EU's Instrument for Pre-Accession Assistance (IPA) are managed directly by Turkey in consultation with the European Commission. As EUSG's Director for Political Affairs Alp Ay told ESI in December 2009, Turkish line ministries have proved effective in taking advantage of the available financing:

"Turkey received the first EU pre-accession funds in 2002. At the time there were rumours that Turkey's absorption capacity was so limited that it would only be able to spend about three percent of the funds – actually 95 percent of these funds have been spent. And at the last call for proposals of IPA Component I, we had to make a hard choice among the 130 project proposals which were brought forward and of which we could only select about 30-40."

Table: allocation of EU Pre-accession Funding for Turkey (million Euros)








Transition Assistance and Institution Building







Cross-border Co-operation







Regional Development







Human Resources Development







Rural Development














Such financial assistance, combined with EU guidelines, benchmarks, and twinning projects, has helped Turkey make headway in a number of fields. In chapters like financial services, economic and monetary policy, customs union and free movement of goods (all of them blocked), Turkey has achieved significant alignment with the EU. According to one Commission official, interviewed by ESI in November 2010, "if there were the political will to open these chapters, progress would be quick.".

When political circumstances allow for new chapters to be opened, Turkey can be prepared to hit the ground running. By adopting the EU acquis in most areas it will have made it much easier to open new chapters and much easier to close them. This is anything but idle speculation. When legal alignment is secured, the accession process can proceed very quickly. The Accession Conference – an intergovernmental meeting between a candidate country and the member states during which negotiations on a new chapter are formally launched – can be called at will. Crucially, the conference can decide to open more than one chapter at a time. In Croatia's case, six chapters were opened on one day in June 2007. Likewise, more than one chapter can be closed during the conference. On 2 October 2009, Croatia closed five. A few chapters can even be opened and closed on the very same day, as was the case with the chapter on Science and Research in the negotiations with Turkey and Croatia. Egemen Bagis assumes that "if the chapters are unblocked, Turkey can open and close 12 chapters in six to nine months." (Speech at the "Turkey in Europe" meeting of the European Greens/EFA Group, Istanbul, 1 November 2010.)

An early breakthrough in the accession talks may not be likely but it is not inconceivable either. After all, Turkey can "unfreeze" eight negotiation chapters with the snap of a finger. The opening of these chapters hinges not on any comprehensive solution to the Cyprus issue – which might be years away – but on a political decision to ratify and implement the Ankara Protocol. This is politically very sensitive, but technically easy. It will be made much easier politically if and when the EU adopts the direct trade regulation (DTR) with northern Cyprus, which the European Commission has recently put before the European Parliament. The chances for a swift adoption of the DTR were dealt a setback on 20 October 2010, when the Parliament's Legal Affairs Committee (JURI) opined that the proper legal basis for the DTR was the Accession Treaty with Cyprus (which does not provide for any involvement of the European Parliament and requires unanimity in the Council) and not Article 207 of the Lisbon Treaty (which requires "co-decision" by the EP and a qualified majority in the Council, and bypassing a possible Cypriot veto. (For more information, see Nathalie Tocci, "The Baffling Short-sightedness in the EU-Turkey-Cyprus Triangle", Istituto Affari Internazionali, October 2010.)

Despite the JURI committee's vote, the EP has not yet had its final say on the matter. The dossier has now been forwarded to the presidents of the Parliament's political groups, who will decide when to table it for a plenary vote. In other words, although it might not be any time soon (given a lack of agreement on the issue among and within the political groups), the DTR will still be voted on by the EP plenary.

Things might also change quickly inside the EU. Not too long ago, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, a vocal opponent of Turkish accession, seemed likely to win re-election in 2012. Today, however, with Sarkozy's popularity ratings at an all time low, it is conceivable that the 2012 election may deprive the anti-Turkey camp of its most outspoken member.

BEKO is among the largest producers of consumer electronics and
home appliances in Europe. Photo: BEKO

In the absence of an early breakthrough, an inevitable question is sure to arise: why should Turkey go ahead with adopting the EU acquis if it cannot be sure that it will actually be admitted? After all, reforms in areas like public procurement and environment are often costly, either politically or in terms of investments required. "Turkish industry will not start to pay for something that has no guaranteed payback," Cengiz Aktar, chairman of the Department of EU Relations at Bahcesehir University, told ESI in November 2009. Why go on, therefore?

The question, quite simply, is the Turks' to answer. Most of the acquis, even when it comes with a large price tag, is in Turkey's general interest, signifying as it does a chance to modernise the Turkish economy and the public administration. (A same question could have been asked about the 1995 customs union, which has contributed to a dramatic and largely positive transformation of the Turkish economy.) Some of the acquis, however, may not be in Turkey's general interest. Bearing this in mind, Turkey can play it a la carte until relevant chapters are opened, putting cost-intensive or inconvenient reforms on the back burner while making rapid progress in other areas.

In the meantime, Turkish civil society must make sure the Turkish government does not use the slowdown in the accession process as an excuse to forestall reforms opposed by powerful special interest groups. Public procurement reform and environmental regulation, to cite Aktar's examples, are indeed challenging, even costly. As such, they may be opposed by business groups with links to the government or by heavy polluters. The first would fight to preserve a system that allows them to benefit from patronage networks and backroom deals; the second dread making the investments necessary to comply with EU environmental laws. Each would like nothing more than for Turkish politicians to protect the status quo and to repeat that reforms are not "worth it" unless they ensure EU accession. It is up to pro-EU public interest groups to dispute such logic – to argue, in other words, that reforms in public procurement and environmental protection are necessary not only for the sake of complying with EU regulations, but for the sake of making Turkey a more transparent economy, a more attractive tourist destination, and a better place to live. 

The obstacles which have prevented the chapter on public procurement to be opened until now are a good case in point. While some in Turkey believe (erroneously) that Turkey would be required to open up its lucrative public procurement market to outsiders even before accession (which is a matter of negotiations and would only ever happen in a reciprocal manner), the opening benchmarks require only that it introduce a transparent regime for handling exceptions to the public procurement law. All Turkey really needs to do is list the exceptions currently in place. This would be of benefit for the Turkish economy and for Turkish taxpayers. The fact that in some chapters such opening benchmarks are intentionally kept confidential – thus allowing special interests in Turkey to pretend that they protect national interests – is something Turkish civil society or media would do well to challenge.

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