The question of Turkey’s accession to the European Union has been causing numerous discussions and controversies within and around the Union. Turkey applied to accede to the European Economic Community (EEC), EU’s predecessor, as early as 1987. Notably, Turkey serves for the future of Europe being a founding member of the Council of Europe (CoE) since 1949, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) since 1961 and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation (OSCE) since 1973. Moreover, by 1995 Turkey became a part of the Customs Union, which allowed it to trade with EU member states without the customs duties normally implemented on trade with non-EU countries. Although Turkey has been officially recognised as a candidate for full membership at the Helsinki European Council in 1999, accession negotiations which began as early as 2005 continue till today.
Irrespective of these negotiations remaining unresolved in addition to ongoing questions as to whether Turkey will succeed in achieving full member status, the regions of Turkey have already started cooperating with the EU, since 2006, through the Assembly of European Regions (AER). This interregional cooperation has not always been a routine in Europe; it has undoubtedly come a long way since the AER’s creation. Established in 1985, AER has, for 30 years, been instrumental in unifying the development and cooperation of regions in Europe by gradually developing cross-border programmes.
As the president of AER since 2013, I am convinced, now more than ever, that the regional level is key to reinforcing and promoting the values of the EU and creating a strong Europe. AER held the Autumn
Bureau meeting in Ankara, Turkey, on 16-17 December 2014, taking this as an opportunity, with the support of the Turkish EU Ministry, to organise a gathering of all Turkish cities and metropolitan municipalities. During this meeting it was made evident that the Turkish local actors are admittedly interested in what AER has to offer, with specific reference to:
• Increasing the regions’ political influence within the EU institutions
• influencing national decision makers
• Promoting regional opportunities and increasing regions’ visibility
• Facilitating interregional communication.
Regretfully, the Turkish partners did express their underlying doubts and fears as to the true value and benefits that would come from the EU. They also resented the haste in which Turkey is regularly condemned by EU representatives being ineligible for EU membership.
Being a Turkish native, as well as holding a position as a politician running a European political organisation, places me in a symbolic and privileged position to be able to pursue and direct the continued development of Turkey and EU relations, the development of which looks to be promising. We already represent over 200 regions and 35 countries, 40% of which are outside the EU. AER offers its utter support and expertise in order to make regional authorities a target when promoting Europe. The meeting with the Turkish local actors in Ankara compounded once again that a bottom-up approach is extremely important, and hence targeting regional politicians when pursuing the activities mentioned above.
Given that some member states may call for referendums to decide upon the accession of Turkey to the EU, the role of regional politicians becomes much more important in informing individual citizens.