Amid Europe's economic crisis and the ongoing instabilities in the Middle East relations with Turkey are far more important than they ever were, foreign ministers from sixteen EU members said in a joint article published on EUobserver.
ANKARA- "At a time when the EU faces economic challenges and continuing instability in the Middle East, our relationship with Turkey matters more than ever," said the article, the ministers said in "The EU and Turkey: Stronger Together."
The ministers said a meeting of the EU-Turkey Association Council last week have demonstrated the need to work together to promote shared prosperity, security and values.
"In these tough economic times, increasing trade with Turkey offers opportunities for EU businesses. With a GDP growth rate of 8.5 percent last year, the second fastest in the G20 after China, Turkey is now the EU's fifth largest export market," they said.
The ministers said Turkish entrepreneurs in Europe ran businesses worth 40 billion euros, employing half a million people, and European and Turkish economies were increasingly integrated in sectors such as aviation, automobiles and electronics.
"Turkey is well placed to become an energy hub, with both sides benefiting from projects to build the necessary infrastructure, including development of the Southern gas corridor," the ministers said,
Ministers said the commercial relationship could be stronger, adding that while EU-Turkey trade had grown steadily, Turkey's trade with other regions had grown even faster.
"This is partly a symptom of the wider shift of economic power to Asia, but also reflects problems with the EU-Turkey customs union and other trade restrictions that prevent our commercial relationship from achieving its full potential," they said.
The ministers said they welcomed a recent agreement on a path towards visa liberalisation, linked to broader co-operation on migration, which had the potential to promote trade, combat illegal immigration and support wider people to people contacts.
"Here, signature by Turkey of the EU-Turkey readmission agreement would be a crucial step on the way towards fulfilling Turkish citizens' aspirations to travel more freely in Europe. As the dialogue between the EU and Turkey on mobility and security grows, we hope to see further concrete results. In this framework, we hope Turkey will extend visa free travel to EU member states," the foreign ministers said.
The foreign ministers said the past few months had again demonstrated Turkey's importance in supporting stability in the Middle East and beyond, adding that Istanbul had hosted a series of key meetings to discuss Syria, Iran, Somalia and terrorism.
"Turkey is playing a critical and constructive role in increasing international pressure on the regime of President Bashar Assad in Syria and is a crucial partner in building security in Afghanistan. [And it] offers its neighbours an inspirational example of a secular and democratic country with a growing middle class. At the same time, the EU remains the largest trading partner for most of these countries and a vital source of investment and ideas," the ministers said.
The ministers said many priorities the EU and Turkey share in this region make it essential that Turkey and the Union continued to deepen co-operation, adding that a meeting with foreign minister Davutoglu in the margins of a March foreign affairs council, initiated by EU foreign affairs head Cathy Ashton, was "a good first step."
They said further dialogue should follow that first step on regional issues like the Western Balkans and Southern Caucasus and joint projects in the Middle East and North Africa.
"The EU and Turkey should be partners in shaping events. Working together we can achieve more and send a stronger message to encourage transformation. Turkey's ability to inspire reform in its neighbourhood is linked to its EU accession process," they said. "The Turkey of today is radically transformed from the country that applied to join the EU a quarter of a century ago," they said.
The ministers said Turkey had achieved significant reforms in areas such as civilian control of the military and the independence of the judiciary, adding however that reform remained a work in progress and improvements were needed in the areas of freedom of expression, women's rights and protection of minorities. "The work on a new constitution presents a crucial opportunity to address such issues."
The ministers said Turkey's constructive contribution to a Cyprus settlement and its willingness to open its ports and airports to Cypriot vessels remained a key point and that progress was also needed on the important issue of EU-Nato co-operation, where the ministers said EU members encouraged Turkey to show flexibility.
"Just as Turkey must meet its obligations to the EU, so the EU must meet its obligations to Turkey," foreign ministers said. "Injecting new momentum into the process will benefit both the EU and Turkey. That must be our ambition in the months ahead."
The article was jointly penned by Nikolay Mladenov, Urmas Paet, Erkki Tuomioja, Guido Westerwelle, Janos Martonyi, Giulio Terzi di Sant'agata, Edgars Rinkevics, Audronius Azubalis, Radoslaw Sikorski, Paulo Portas, Andrei Marga, Miroslav Lajcak, Karl Erjavec, Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo, Carl Bildt and William Hague, the foreign ministers of Bulgaria, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom.