Birgit Schnieber-Jastram is a member of the Christian Democratic Union of Germany and sits in the European Parliament since 2009. Before she was State Minister for Family and Social Affairs of Hamburg and Second Mayor of Hamburg. In the EP she is a member of the Delegation to the EU-Turkey Joint Parliamentary Committee.
When signing the Ankara Agreement in 1963, the first President of the European Commission, Walter Hallstein, declared: "....one day the final step is to be taken: Turkey is to be full member of the Community. This wish, and the fact that it is shared by us and our Turkish friends alike, is the strongest expression of our community of interest."
Turkey has stayed on course towards the EU for almost 50 years. No other state has been waiting in front of the EU's door for so long.
Hallstein apparently did not have any doubts that Turkey belongs to the EU. Unfortunately, the desire on the European side has faded in recent years. But: Back then we made a promise that we have to keep today - for our own sake.
In fact we need Turkey and Turkey needs us. We need each other. It is clear that Turkey's integration into the EU would be beneficial for both. The truth is that neither the EU nor Turkey can afford failure in this regard. The political and economic potential that the integration offers for both, the EU and Turkey, is crucial:
Since start of the EU accession negotiations with Turkey in October 2005 Turkey has made progress in many areas. Without any doubt the negotiations and the perspective of future membership have significantly contributed to reform efforts in general and to the process of democratization in specific. The annual progress report on Turkey has again acknowledged some remarkable improvements in 2011, such as civilian oversight of the armed forces, independence and impartiality of the judiciary, return of confiscated properties to minority foundations and constitutional reforms. On the other hand there are the persisting problems of press freedom, religious and minority rights, violence against women and the Cyprus issue. The Turks know about all of them and they know that solving them is necessary to open the door to the EU.
The biggest challenge that Turkey is facing today is revising its constitution in a more democratic, civilian and inclusive way. The expectations in the EU and in Turkish society are high. And just as the EU has been the driving force for reforms in Turkey since the start of negotiation process, the EU should support Turkey on this journey as well. Turkey needs a reliable and experienced partner to master this challenge.
With regard to foreign affairs, Turkey has been playing an essential role for the EU. Over the years it has become clear that the EU needs Turkey for strategic reasons. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu once said: "The EU can only become a major power together with Turkey." This has proven to be right, especially in light of regional developments in the wake of the Arab Spring and in the Arab–Israeli conflict. The EU needs Turkey as a bridge builder between the West and the East, between the West and the Arab world.
Turkey is a good example that a democratic system is compatible with Islam. This could be an impetus for the Arab world to start a democratization process. But even though Turkey sees itself as a superpower in the region, it cannot and should not dominate the Arab countries. Such an approach is always risky. Germany's predicament after the fall of the Berlin Wall was similar: At that time European integration was the answer, just as it should be for Turkey now. That is why Turkey should continue to steer the course toward EU membership.
The Ottoman Empire was considered as "sick man of Europe". Today its successor, Turkey, could rather be described as the coming "strong man of Europe". Turkey's economic growth is second only to China's. The growth rate has reached 10% in the last years. Such dynamic country, which managed to triple its economy within the period of 10 years, has a lot to offer to Europeans - especially in times of economic crisis. While the EU is aware of this economic potential, Turkey knows very well that it needs the EU's markets.
Since the customs union was established in 1995, the economic relationship it has gradually depended. Nowadays we can speak of real economic interdependence. Turkey is the EU's seventh biggest trade partner while the EU is the most important trade partner for Turkey. This successful economic cooperation should be deepened and expanded even further for mutual benefit.
In this context we must not forget, that Europe can be characterized as an ageing, shrinking and static continent today. In order to tackle this challenge the EU will quite literally need some kind of "renaissance" sooner or later. Turkey's accession could help us gain the momentum necessary for that.
For Turkey the EU membership would be beneficial - politically, economically and also social-culturally. For the EU it is necessary. Nowadays it might even seem that the EU needs Turkey more than otherwise. The EU needs Turkey as an emerging market, as an important trade partner, as an energy corridor for Caucasian and Caspian oil and gas, as a mediator in the Arab spring, as a model for North Africa, as a bridge to Asia and as a strong ally in security policy.
In short: The EU and Turkey need each other. Thus it is time for both sides to start acting accordingly. The excuses of the economic crisis and allegedly insurmountable cultural differences sometimes advanced by the European side are lame at best and insulting at worst. Turkey must be treated fairly as each other candidate country.
On the other hand Turkey's threat to freeze relations with the EU Presidency while Cyprus holds the office just helps skeptics on both sides.
We should not forget that in 1963 both the EU and Turkey made promises aiming towards the accession of Turkey into the EU. They both have to live up to them now! Turkey has definitely made some progress, but what about the EU? Maybe it is really time for Turkey to write a progress report on the EU, as Turkish EU-Minister Egemen Bağış once suggested with smile.