Turkey’s EU bid and Malta’s support for this made local headlines recently as a result of a visit by the Turkish Minister for EU Affairs, Egemen Bagis, and a Nationalist backbencher’s opposition to Turkey joining the EU.

Malta has always voiced its support for Turkey’s EU membership bid- Anthony Manduca

It is important to clarify some of the statements made about Turkey and its EU application as well as Malta’s support for this process. Turkey was declared an official EU candidate country at the EU Helsinki summit in December 1999 – which means it has had this status for 12 and a half years – and not in 2004 as stated in various sections of the press. I remember this event very well because I was in Helsinki covering the summit.

It is also important to point out that Turkey and the then European Economic Community signed an association agreement way back in 1963 which was aimed at eventual EEC membership. In 1987 Turkey applied for membership of the EEC and in 1995 an agreement was signed creating a customs union between Turkey and the EU. Turkey has been a member of the Council of Europe since 1949 and a member of Nato – where it has the second largest army after the US –since 1952.

In December 2004 the EU defined the conditions for the opening of accession negotiations with Turkey which then started in October 2005 when the “screening process” began. In June 2006 accession negotiations officially started.

Ever since Malta joined the EU in May 2004 it has always voiced its support for Turkey’s EU membership bid, so there was nothing new when Foreign Minister Tonio Borg reiterated Malta’s position during Mr Bagis’ visit.

During Mr Bagis’ visit, Nationalist MP Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando made it clear that he was opposed to Turkey’s EU membership and said that the Maltese government should have debated its position on Turkey in Parliament before taking a stand.

While Dr Pullicino Orlando is perfectly entitled to his opinion on Turkey’s EU bid – some of the points he mentioned have also been raised in a number of EU capitals – the fact is that when Turkey concludes its accession negotiations, which is a long way off, the Maltese Parliament, like all other parliaments in EU member states, will vote on the final treaty agreed to by both sides.

It is a fact, however, that accession negotiations between Turkey and the EU have not progressed well. Since 2006, Turkey has opened negotiations in only 13 of the 35 chapters (areas of EU law), it has closed only one of them – science and research – and 18 key chapters are frozen by the EU, some of which on the insistence of France for political reasons and others by Cyprus, as a result of Turkey’s refusal to open its ports to Greek Cypriot vessels under a trade pact with the EU.

There is no doubt that a number of EU member states, such as France, Germany, the Netherlands and Austria are having second thoughts about supporting Turkey’s EU bid.

There are fears that Turkey’s accession will drain the EU’s finances and that an overwhelmingly Muslim country will not be able to integrate within the bloc. Of course, the EU knew that Turkey was a relatively poor country with a Muslim population when it recognised it as a candidate country in 1999, but that is another argument.

Other obstacles to Turkey’s EU bid are fears about the country’s human rights record and its treatment of minorities, the perception that the ruling Justice and Development Party is turning its back on the country’s secular tradition and the Cyprus problem.

These issues are all valid and need to be addressed, and the EU should make it clear that any progress on Turkey’s accession negotiations would depend on these issues being tackled, instead of simply freezing most of negotiations, which to me seems very unfair.

Nobody can deny there are difficulties with Turkey’s accession process, which is probably the biggest challenge the EU has had to face in its history, along with the eurozone crisis. However, has to look at the global picture. If handled properly, Turkish EU membership could be a huge success story.

Turkey in the EU would greatly strengthen Europe’s defence capabilities, consolidate Turkish democracy, serve as a bridge to the Muslim world, secure much needed energy supplies, contribute to peace and stability in the entire region, increase Europe’s clout in international politics, strengthen Europe’s multicultural society and open up a huge market for European businesses.

Turkey is the 16th largest economy in the world, the sixth largest in Europe, one of the fastest growing economies in the world and the fastest growing economy in Europe. These huge advantages cannot simply be overlooked in what could be a win-win situation for both Europe and Turkey.

There is no doubt that Turkey has implemented many positive political and economic reforms over the years in the direction of a liberal free market democracy. However, there remain many shortcomings, particularly with regard to human rights and the administration of justice.

A recent Council of Europe report has criticised Turkey for its lengthy court proceedings and detentions, sometimes up to 10 years, the arrest and imprisonment of scores of journalists and uncertainly about the judiciary’s independence from the executive.

Furthermore, while Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has successfully reined in the military, which was responsible for four military coups since 1960, some observers believe that the Turkish government sometimes deals too severely with some of its legitimate critics. For example, a few months ago a Turkish prosecutor launched an inquiry after the country’s main opposition leader made critical comments after visiting a prison.

Both the EU and Turkey need to show greater flexibility in dealing with each other. Turkey should review its position on Cyprus and show more commitment to the respect of human rights, while the EU should not block its accession talks with Turkey but make it clear that the progress of such negotiations will depend on Turkish full respect for the EU’s political and economic criteria.

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