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The EU and Turkey are close partners. Our cooperation covers a range of fields such as economic and energy relations, the accession talks, international affairs with a focus on Syria, and of course the common challenge arising from a huge influx of refugees.
Turkey is hosting nearly three million refugees. No other country has taken in as many Syrian refugees over the past few years. This number is enormous compared to those we are talking about in Germany or Europe. We are well aware that Turkey bears the greatest burden of the refugee and migration flow. And we won’t leave your country to cope with this great burden on its own.
It is therefore essential that Germany and the EU work very closely with your country. The unprecedented close succession of EU-Turkey summits shows that our cooperation has reached a new level.
At the November 2015 Summit, the EU and Turkey agreed on a comprehensive agenda with a Joint Action Plan on stemming the refugee crisis. I am glad to note that its implementation has gathered pace.
I am especially pleased that projects financed by the EU’s newly established Refugee Facility for Turkey can start as early as this month. It is high time that the EU start sharing the burden in a meaningful way with Turkey.
I am also pleased about the new momentum regarding the re-admission of irregular migrants from Greece to Turkey. This cooperation sends a clear signal that is not worthwhile crossing the Aegean.
The proposals presented by the Turkish Prime Minister at the summit on 7 March would mean that Turkey would take back every irregular migrant from Greece. This would be a real game changer. But let me be clear: for the readmission of migrants from Greece to Turkey, we need a solution fully in line with European and international law.
Our common challenges emanating from the refugee crisis have one very positive effect: they remind us of the necessity of close cooperation between Ankara and Brussels, Berlin, Athens and the other capitals involved.
We all know how much a coordinated approach is needed in order to solve the current refugee crisis. No country can tackle this crisis alone. I am therefore gravely concerned that Turkey is more and more isolated internationally. In times of crisis, Turkey must reach out its hand to its neighbouring countries in the Middle East. Working together with other partners is always better than standing alone!
As you all know, there has been a certain fatigue in recent years regarding the Turkish accession negotiations with the EU. The Turkish Government recently underlined its firm desire to become a member of the European Union. I warmly welcome this clear commitment, which we sometimes found lacking in recent years.
This is why I am pleased that the EU took the decision to revitalise the accession talks. In December we opened another negotiation chapter, chapter 17 on economic and monetary policy. This is proof that the EU is willing to deliver.
We clearly wish to see Turkey on a European path. And we will support Turkey on this path. But let me be clear: there will be no shortcut to membership. Turkey can become an EU member when it has met all membership criteria in their entirety. But there will be no political “discount” when it comes to EU accession. This is a question of credibility for the EU’s enlargement policy, as well as for other candidate countries and for the general public in EU Member States.
The European Commission is currently doing the groundwork as regards opening chapters 23 and 24 on the rule of law. I would like to stress that chapters 23 and 24 are of the utmost importance. These chapters are about core values of the European Union: human rights; freedom of expression, assembly and the media; and the independence of the judiciary. As a friend of Turkey, I am very concerned about recent disturbing news.
In my constituency, I am sometimes asked whether it makes sense to proceed with accession talks given the situation in the South East of Turkey or the human rights, rule of law and media situation. The German public is keeping a critical eye on domestic developments in Turkey. Many Germans are worried about whether Turkey is ready to commit to fundamental European values.
About 1.5 million people in Germany have Turkish roots. This is one reason why the German Government feels very committed to maintaining close and reliable bilateral relations with Turkey.
We acknowledge that Turkey has achieved remarkable economic growth rates during the past years. In addition, a number of reforms have stabilised the Turkish welfare state. We have respect for a number of positive developments in Turkey. But on the other hand, we don’t hold back our criticism if it is necessary.
Let me be very clear: we need to proceed with the accession talks and to prepare the rule of law chapters, not despite unsatisfactory developments, but rather because of them. Accession talks are the best instrument the EU has to promote positive change in Turkey. Engaging in a structured dialogue would highlight that the EU does not turn a blind eye to human rights issues.
We also count on civil society in the candidate countries to do its bit. It is up to the citizens of the candidate countries to hold their leaders accountable.
Meeting criteria is important in another respect, too: visa liberalisation. I am sure that many of you who have travelled to the EU are annoyed by the lengthy bureaucratic procedures when applying for visa.
Visa liberalisation does not come as a sign of political goodwill. In 2013, the EU and Turkey agreed an ambitious roadmap with 72 criteria. The EU will only be able to grant full visa-free travel to Turkish citizens if the criteria are fully met.
I am confident that the Turkish Government will do its best to move up a gear in order to adopt and implement all necessary reforms as quickly as possible. In the end, EU Member States and the European Parliament will decide on the basis of facts, not words.
Personally speaking, I would be very happy if visa-free travel brought European and Turkish societies even closer to one another. It is my sincere wish that you and your fellow students will soon be able to visit my country or other EU Member States easily.