Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn: It all depends on Turkey
By Unto Hämäläinen
When the European Union went on its summer holiday in late July, Commissioner Olli Rehn finally got a chance to get to his summer cottage on the shores of Puulavesi in Mikkeli.
During the first week of his holiday, an unexploded bomb from the war was found in the neighbouring village, and the area was evacuated.
"I know the place where they found the bomb quite well. I had been cycling there a couple of days earlier", Rehn says.
The existence of the bomb suited Rehn's state of mind. He had recently started to read a new book on Winston Churchill. The theme of the book was how Britain's wartime Prime Minister had modified his own biography to fit the requirements of whatever the political status quo was at any given time.
"In his memoirs published during the Cold War, Churchill gives the impression that he was a great friend of Finland during the Winter War, and that he was in favour of sending an expedition here. However, according to many sources he had expressed the wish that Finland had not been so obdurate towards the demands of the Soviet Union already before the Winter War and during the conflict itself."
The life of Churchill is a passion for Rehn. His attitude towards the great man seems to alternate between admiration and anger. He experienced his greatest shock concerning Churchill ten years ago; in a second-hand bookshop in Oxford, he found a letter that the British Prime Minister had sent to Stalin, congratulating him on the offensive in the Karelian Isthmus, which began in 1944.
"A committed democrat congratulated a committed dictator for his success", Rehn sniffs, although he adds that he understands the obligations of being in a military alliance.
If Rehn could have freely chosen how to spend his holiday, it probably would have involved plenty of good reading, swimming, sitting in the sauna, and other types of lazy relaxation. However, as the European Commissioner for Enlargement, Rehn is such an important person that he cannot decide on his holidays himself.
Rehn's work follows him wherever he goes. This is what happened this summer as well: there were speeches that had to be given in Finland and abroad, negotiations, and meetings, as well as a constant need to follow the news. If there was a computer connected to the Internet anywhere in the vicinity, Rehn would check a few choice news sites.
Part of the work affects his family as well. This summer, Olli and Merja Rehn hosted an exceptionally important guest at their summer cottage. Turkey's Minister of Finance Ali Babacan spent a week in Mikkeli with his family at the beginning of August.
The purpose of the visit was to get to know Babacan, who was recently named Turkey's main negotiator in the EU membership process.
Rehn politely acknowledges Babacan's achievements as Finance Minister: Turkey's economy has grown fast, and inflation is under control. Babacan is a few years younger than Rehn - just 38 years old. He is a member of a new generation of Turkish politicians, and has studied economics in the United States.
Olli Rehn concedes that the Turkish question has taken up much of his time this summer. He calls it the "survival struggle of enlargement policy".
There have been increasingly vocal calls for postponing Turkey's membership talks ever since voters in France and The Netherlands rejected the proposed constitution for the EU.
The loudest calls for a postponement came from French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, who urged Turkey to recognise Cyprus in the early part of August before any negotiations start.
"That would be a new precondition", Rehn said, rejecting the demand. He points out that during the summer, Turkey has fulfilled the two tough preconditions that the EU unanimously set for the start of membership talks: Turkey's criminal law has been changed, and Turkey has expanded its customs agreement with the EU to apply to the new member states - including Cyprus.
With the talk turning to Turkey, Olli Rehn no longer looks the part of an isolated researcher buried in the world of books. He has subtly donned his politician's suit of armour. The comments of a relaxed thinker have turned into political statements.
Caution is important, because in September it will be seen if Rehn gets to begin the most important project on his desk as Enlargement Commissioner - that of membership talks with Turkey.
The 25 foreign ministers of the EU countries will meet on Thursday and Friday to discuss enlargement. The foreign ministers will have to make two far-reaching decisions: they will once again evaluate the conditions previously set by the EU, and will decide whether or not to give Rehn and the Commission the authority to launch negotiations on the 3rd of October.
"The foreign ministers' meeting is important. Both decisions require unanimity from the member states. In the view of the Commission, the two preconditions have been fulfilled, creating the preconditions to start negotiations. By expanding the customs union, Turkey recognises the EU with its 25 members, including Cyprus. I assume that the foreign ministers will demand that Turkey implement the agreement without reservations, and that it recognise Cyprus during the talks, as part of the unification of the island."
"I am confident that the Commission will get a mandate in September to start the negotiations. Launching the talks will encourage Turkey to implement reforms which strengthen the rule of law, and will bring Turkey in a more European direction in other respects as well", Rehn says.
Rehn feels that the Commission's proposal for a mandate for negotiations is the toughest mandate ever. Never before have such tough conditions been set for membership talks. This guarantees that matters will remain under the control of the EU.
"If necessary we can decide on long transition periods and permanent exceptions - with respect to the free movement of labour, for instance", Rehn says.
"The Union has an emergency brake with which it can cut off the negotiations if Turkey were to systematically violate human rights."
Rehn makes one more diplomatic move. There have been recent calls from France and elsewhere that the recognition of Cyprus should be a precondition for negotiations. Rehn responds to the leaders of the countries sending this message.
"I hope that the UN would again seek a solution to the question of the unification of Cyprus, so that relations between Turkey and Cyprus might become normalised. In this, I would especially like France and Britain, the EU's permanent members on the Security Council, to be active."
Football is one of Rehn's hobbies, and he has learned the tactic of moving the ball down to the opponent's end of the pitch in other ways as well.
Rehn appears to believe staunchly that negotiations with Turkey will begin. But what if the foreign ministers topple the whole project in the final stretch?
"If the door were closed on Turkey, the EU would not have any influence on development in the country. It would be seen in Turkey as a final closing of the door to Europe, which would be very likely to strengthen the positions of the old Kemalists on the one hand and the Islamists on the other."
Olli Rehn took careful note of the reactions to the result of the French referendum on the EU constitution. In the southeast of Europe, the happiest reactions came from Turkish nationalists and Serb radicals. Outside the region, the result was welcomed most by Russian nationalists.
"They calculated that the EU would be forced to curl up and focus on solving internal problems of the EU. If that were to happen, the EU would have less of an influence on developments in Turkey, the West Balkans, and Ukraine. Europe would certainly not benefit from this."
Olli Rehn certainly has more on his plate in the Commission than just Turkey. Bulgaria and Romania should join the EU from the beginning of 2007. Croatia's membership talks have not started yet, because the country has not fully cooperated with the UN War Crimes Tribunal. Agreements also need to be reached with certain West Balkan countries, such as Serbia & Montenegro and Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Rehn believes that the foreign ministers' meeting will aim at setting tougher conditions for enlargement talks.
"Even though the enlargement of the EU has been successful, national concerns need to be taken seriously. We must move forward with moderation, and we must demand that the candidate countries follow the criteria to the letter. The EU should not make new commitments at this stage, but it must adhere to the existing ones."
The relationship between the EU and Russia is of special interest to the Finns. The issue is not part of Rehn's job - it falls under the mandate of Austria's Benita Ferrero-Waldner. However, Rehn is quite involved in relations with Russia, because he is one of the small group of Commission members involved in external relations.
In mid-August, Russia's government decided not to sign a border treaty with Estonia. The decision came as a surprise to Olli Rehn.
"It is hard to understand why the border treaty, which was finalised in negotiations, could not be approved by the Russian government and ratified by the Duma. This is a new - and completely unnecessary - problem in relations between Russia and the European Union. The EU supports the Baltic States", Rehn insists.
"Positive development in relations between the EU and Russia is overshadowed by old suspicions. In Europe people are not yet sure that Russia will accept the European principle that might is no longer the only right."
Next year Russia will hold the presidency of the Council of Europe, which focuses on human rights. Olli Rehn hopes that this will oblige Russia to cooperate with the others on an equal footing.
In the final days of August, Rehn went on a language course to hone his skills in French.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 28.8.2005
Previously in HS International Edition:
Commissioner Rehn pleased with results of EU enlargement (2.5.2005)
Human rights take centre stage as Rehn visits Turkey (9.3.2005)
Cypriot Ambassador says Turkish President was reluctant to shake hands with her (11.3.2005)
Turkish President angered by planned dinner arrangements for visit (10.3.2005)
Human rights take centre stage as Rehn visits Turkey (9.3.2005)
Commissioner Rehn: US not a party to discussions with Turkey on EU membership (18.1.2005)
UNTO HÄMÄLÄINEN / Helsingin Sanomat