The issue of Turkey's accession to the European Union is a question of fundamental importance for both Turkey and the European Union. Its outcome will have profound and far-reaching political, economic and social consequences for both. But for all its historic significance, the future of Ankara s institutional relations with Brussels has little to do with the question of whether Turkey is a part of Europe or not. The reason is simple - this question was answered more than fifty years ago, when Turkey became a member state of the Council of Europe. The date was 9 August 1949 and Turkey - together with Greece - joined just three months after the Organisation was set up by the Netherlands and nine other like-minded west European democracies. Turkey became a member of Europe's first political and human rights organisation - a year before Germany, almost seven years before my own country, Austria, and more than a quarter of a century before Portugal and Spain.
Certainly, the fact that Turkey has had its place in Strasbourg for more than half a century does not mean that its membership has always been a smooth ride - to put it mildly. But for all the ups and downs of the past, two facts should be borne in mind by all those reflecting on Turkey's future role and place in our continent.
Firstly, we must always remember that Turkey has helped to shape the project of the political Europe from the very beginning. Secondly, we must be ready to acknowledge that Turkey's commitment to Europe's values is constantly gaining in credibility and strength.
On 3 March this year, the Parliamentary Assembly's Committee responsible for the monitoring of our member states' compliance with Council of Europe standards adopted a text on the honouring of obligations and commitments by Turkey. The draft resolution, which was adopted by an overwhelming majority in the Committee and which will be debated in the plenary chamber by the end of April, states that Turkey has achieved more reforms in the last two years than in the previous ten! The Committee's recommendation to the Assembly is that Turkey's recent achievements in the consolidation of democracy and the improvements in the protection of human rights justify the closure of the monitoring procedure.
A much-needed acceleration of democratic reforms in Turkey comes at a critical point in its relations with the European Union, but the progress was made possible because of the ground work done in the context of its membership of the Council of Europe. That being said, the achievements of the past two years cannot and should not be attributed to external factors alone. In many ways, the positive developments of the past two years represent a return to the source, to the origins of the modern Turkish state.
Eighty years ago, Kemal Pasha Atatürk introduced one of the most dramatic, far reaching and comprehensive political and social reforms ever witnessed on European soil. In the period of fifteen years under his leadership, Turkey was transformed from a caliphate into a secular state. Atatürk gave equal rights to women and introduced a new alphabet and new attire. The underlying motive of all Atatürk's reforms was to modernise the Turkish society and bring it into Europe's fold. The efforts of the present Turkish authorities to improve and consolidate the functioning of democracy and the respect of human rights, in accordance with Council of Europe standards, is a logical continuation of the Atatürk reforms.
These reforms were never meant to stop and be frozen in time.
The Turkey of the 21st century is giving Atatürk's legacy the role it had always deserved - a generator of constant progress, modernisation and change.
It is of course not up to the Council of Europe to decide whether Turkey should become a member of the European Union, even if this is a matter on which everyone - in Europe and beyond - seems to have a strong and clearly defined view. It is, however, important to stress that at the summit in Copenhagen just over a decade ago, the Heads of State and Government of the European Union decided to base the political criteria for EU membership on the compliance with Council of Europe standards of democracy, human rights and the rule of law.
The publication of the Monitoring Committee's report a month ago caused a great deal of political and media attention, not only in Ankara but also in a number of EU capitals. It came as a surprise to many, as it challenged the entrenched views of Turkey in the European political and public opinion.
Turkey has made great progress in the consolidation of its democratic institutions. It is a functioning democracy with a multi-party system, free elections and separation of powers. There is, however, a reason to be concerned with regard to frequent dissolutions of political parties and it is hoped that the use of such extreme measures will be much more limited in the future.
Turkey has considerably reduced the role of the national Security Council, making it a purely consultative body responsible for defence and national security. The authorities should complete this reform by excluding army representatives from civilian bodies such as the Higher Education Council and the Supreme Public Broadcasting Council, and by giving the army its place and role according to international democratic standards.
In the field of the rule of law, the Turkish authorities have announced the abolition of the state security courts and - pending the necessary constitutional changes - have already brought the procedure before these courts in line with ordinary criminal law.
Turkey recently ratified the Council of Europe's Criminal Law Convention on Corruption, and it is hoped that it will soon do the same with the Convention on Laundering, Search, Seizure and Confiscation of the Proceeds from Crime.
Turkey has also achieved considerable progress in the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms. By signing Protocol 13 to the European Convention on Human Rights in January this year, Turkey abolished capital punishment, and thus consolidated the Council of Europe achievement of making Europe a death-penalty free continent. Detention conditions have been improved and the recommendations of the Council of Europe's Committee for the prevention of torture have been systematically implemented. The legislation on freedom of expression has been liberalised, and the laws regulating the freedom of association are now much more flexible than they used to be.
The rights of minorities have always been an area of great concern. The state of emergency in the remaining four south-eastern provinces has recently been lifted and several thousand internally displaced Turkish citizens of Kurdish origin could return to their villages. It is now time to invest more in this region's economic and social reconstruction, to facilitate reconciliation and promote cultural and linguistic diversity in the country.
These few examples in my view provide a convincing illustration of the Turkish government's commitment to a genuine, comprehensive and lasting reform. However, this upbeat assessment of the progress so far does not mean that there is no need for further change. Turkey must show that it is willing and able to sustain and accelerate the pace of reforms in order to consolidate the achievements and make them irreversible. There is no shortage of challenges, but the stakes are simply too high - for Turkey as well as for the rest of Europe - to allow for any slowing down of the effort.
Our discussions today come at a critical point in the efforts to achieve a comprehensive solution to the Cyprus issue before the EU enlargement on 1 May. Turkey's role in this process is crucal. The key message to both communities is that they are inseparably bound to each other, either in success or failure. They will either win, or lose together. There is no third option. This is no longer a zero sum game. We should all do our utmost to help the people of Cyprus understand this reality before they go to polls on 24 April. To this effect, I intend to invite the party leaders to come to Strasbourg once more prior to the referendum.
Turkey and the Council of Europe have had a long and sometimes turbulent, but mutually enriching relationship spanning more than half a century. While I wholeheartedly wish all the best to my Turkish friends and sincerely hope that they will soon enjoy a double claim to Europe's blue and yellow flag, their membership of the European Union would certainly not bring an end to this relationship.
The Council of Europe, whilst constantly reacting and adapting itself to the new circumstances resulting also from the widening of the European Union, is not a consolation prize for those who cannot make it to Brussels. It is not only an added value, but a value in itself, for countries which are not yet members of the European Union, for those which cannot or do not wish to become members in the foreseeable future, and for those which are already members, like our host, The Netherlands, for example.
Council of Europe membership brings huge benefits to countries preparing for EU membership. It has been of great help to the ten countries joining in three weeks time, and it is of great help to Turkey, and others aspiring to join the European Union. We are pleased that this is the case - but at the end of the day, belonging or not belonging to the European Union does not have a fundamental impact on a given country's relationship with the Council of Europe. Our mandate is to promote, consolidate and protect democracy and human rights for the sake of democracy and human rights, and for the benefit of all Europe's citizens, those who live in and outside the European Union. I am sure you will agree that this is also "best belangrijk" - or quite important.
My final thought is on the future of Turkey in Europe. Turkey is a huge country, both in geographic and demographic terms. Regardless of our views on the justification or the feasibility of its membership of the European Union, we must accept that its integration into EU structures would represent a challenging task. For a very long time, we have been able to postpone any serious consideration of this challenge on the grounds of Turkey's democratic and human rights record. This is changing, and it is changing substantially, rapidly and, in my view, irreversibly.
With the democracy and human rights arguments diminishing in relevance and weight, we are increasingly confronted with new arguments against Turkey's accession to the EU. These arguments are frequently accentuating historic, cultural, religious, geographic and other differences between Turkey and the rest of Europe. While it would be simplistic and unfair to qualify all such views as totally unfounded, narrow-minded and malicious, I believe that the title of today's conference, "looking beyond prejudice", represents an adequate reflection on this trend.
Whatever our views on Turkey's future place in Europe, we should never allow the European project to be defined along narrowly construed cultural, religious, historic, geographic or even ethnic lines. The project of political Europe, let us never forget, is first and foremost based on values of democracy, human rights and the rule of law. The fact that a Muslim country and secular state such as Turkey is ready and willing to embrace and abide by these values is the recognition of our own claim that these values are universal, and not merely a pet project of the affluent West European societies. This makes the whole issue of Turkey's future place and role in Europe a fact of huge historic significance, not only for Turkey, not only for Europe, but for the world as a whole.
We are facing a challenge, but where there is a will, there is a way. If the European Union is looking for inspiration as to how to politically and administratively manage the integration of a culturally and religiously distinct new member, the Council of Europe is there to help. For us, diversity and intercultural dialogue and co-operation are not only a good idea, but something which have been - for decades - an essential part of what we do and who we are.
Encouraged by the recent developments I can only conclude that having a modern, democratic, progressive, open and tolerant Turkey on board is an asset to us all. It can only make us more European.