TURKEY: Exclusive interview with Turkish Ambassador to EU (Agence Europe)

Selim Yenel 01.02.2012
Brussels, 02/02/2012 (Agence Europe) - The Permanent Representative of Turkey, Selim Yenel, granted an exclusive interview to Agence Europe on Wednesday 1 February.

Agence Europe (AE): Could you remind us where we are in the negotiations on the accession of Turkey in the EU?

Selim Yenel (SY): We started the talks in October 2005. We have opened 13 chapters, closed only one during the Austrian presidency, in science and research, and there are eight chapters which were blocked in 2006 by the Council. The French themselves have blocked five more but one of them is inside the eight, so it's four more, and then, in 2009, the Greek Cypriots unilaterally also blocked six chapters. So only three chapters can be opened: they are public procurement, competition and social policy. There are difficulties for us to open these chapters, so the accession negotiations have come to a halt basically.

For the last three presidencies, we have not been able to open any chapters and we are trying to do at least one during the Danish presidency, but we're not hopeful. So if we don't open any chapters during this period that means that by the end of year - because it will then be the Greek Cypriot presidency - it will be 5 presidencies without opening a chapter.

(AE) We are talking a lot about the positive agenda. What topics should be included? Are you afraid it will replace the enlargement negotiations?

(SY) We and the Commission and those who have agreed with this have already said this positive agenda is not an alternative to the negotiations. This is something that we need at least to show that the relationship between the EU and Turkey is continuing because they have said the negotiations are going nowhere but we have lot of linkages and relationship with the EU.

In that positive agenda, there are many things. One is with regard to political dialogue, and there is the customs union, the fight against terrorism, the visa issue and the informal talks on the chapters, community programmes...

We have agreed to pursue this. (...) We are hoping to make it work so that at least with regard to the chapters, if we can make some more progress on an informal basis, when the political situation is better, we can proceed very quickly. Otherwise we will lose time and this is not something what we want. So this is a temporary measure, which we understand is necessary to keep the motor running.

(AE) Do you have a date for the beginning of this agenda?

(SY) Next week our EU minister will be coming here and talking to Stefan Füle on this issue. In more detail, the director general will be going to Turkey on 14 February and we hope to start this as quickly as possible.

(AE) Which countries do you consider as your allies and which countries do you think are opposed to your accession?

(SY) We believe that most of the countries support us, and those who are not supporters are France, and the Greek Cypriots of course - they are the most vocal. There could be some countries hiding behind them, we don't know.

(AE) Like Austria, or Germany?

(SY) Could be. But, I mean, when you talk to the Germans or the Austrians, they say that they are not against the negotiations. The Germans have said if we complete the talks, then it's OK. They are not blocking any of these chapters. The ones who are blocking are the French and the Greek Cypriots.

(AE) Do you know why France is opposed to your entry?

(SY): Mr Sarkozy says Turkey has no place in the European Union, he is totally against Turkey in the EU, and he has said that these chapters are directly linked to membership. We think that all the chapters are linked to membership, so we don't understand his logic. He doesn't see Turkey as a candidate, he doesn't want us in the EU, so that's why he has blocked these chapters. (...) I think it is not France, it is Mr Sarkozy who is blocking.

(AE) What do you think about the French law on Armenian genocide?

(SY) Fortunately a number of senators and parliamentarians have sent this legislation to the constitutional court and it will take a decision on this. We believe now that this law will be taken up and resolved in a proper manner because we believe it's unconstitutional. It's against freedom of speech. With regard to the Armenian question, we are ready to talk about it. We don't believe it's a genocide. We believe that certain things happened, people died on both sides, but the word “genocide” is something we cannot accept. (...) It's up to the historians to look into this matter in more detail - there are documents, archives. The Parliament has no place to decide on this. There are only a small number of parliaments who have decided on this. Who are they to decide between two countries? We see it as a domestic politics ploy in France to get votes from the Armenian community. (...) There are other countries which have Armenian communities, in Argentina, Uruguay, where there are similar attempts and laws that were passed, but those laws were striving to recognise this as a genocide, not to stop discussion. Stopping discussion, it's the first time. So it's really ironic, you know: in France you can talk about everything and now you are stopped from talking about this.

(AE) What about the dialogue with the Republic of Cyprus?

(SY) There are talks that have taken place in Greentree in New York between the Turkish and the Greek Cypriots regarding resolving this issue. We are encouraging the Turkish Cypriots to be as forthcoming as possible. As you know, eight years ago, there was a referendum and they said yes (to the UN peace plan with the aim of reunifying the island). So we have all the incentive to be more forthcoming because we know if we don't resolve the Cyprus issue, there is no chance of us becoming members. But there is no direct talk between the Greek Cypriots and Turkey because their counterparts are the Turkish Cypriots.

Nevertheless, we do want an international conference. It should be composed of the two communities, Greece, Turkey, the United Kingdom as a guarantor power and those who are interested. We believe that an international conference could be very helpful in resolving this issue but we are not sure that the Greek Cypriots want this. They are always afraid of these things because, last time, there was an international conference, eight years ago, it went for a referendum afterwards, and they said no. So we need to convince the Greek Cypriots that it's in their interest as well to have an international conference.

(AE) Why doesn't Turkey want Cypriots to take the presidency of the EU and how will it affect your relations with the EU?

(SY) We are not against it. We know they have to take the presidency. What we want is a united Cyprus that can fulfil this role. If there is no resolution and if Cyprus remains divided by 1 July, our policy is very simple: we will continue our talks with the European Commission, the External Action Service, the Parliament and the Council, but we won't be attending any other meetings or informal meetings held by the Presidency. So, if there's any meeting held in southern Cyprus, we won't be going, and if there are any meetings in Brussels that are chaired by the Greek Cypriots, we won't be attending them either. But you know, after Lisbon, the role of the Presidency has diminished, so we don't believe that there will be many incidents anyway.

(AE) Why this boycott of Greek Cyprus?

(SY) We don't recognise them. It's very simple.

(AE) David Cameron spoke last week about “Muslim Turkey” but normally in your constitution, you are a secular country...

(SY) I always see talk in the press about Muslim Turkey or Turkey as a Muslim country. I don't know still why they have to put this. We don't have to explain Turkey in that sense. What does it change if you say Turkey is a Muslim country? We are a secular country. Religion is part of people's personal lives. It has no role on the State, it has no role in official life. So it's like in Belgium or many other countries: you don't say Belgium is a Catholic country.

(AE) So why do you think European people are always talking about Muslim Turkey?

(SY) That is something we don't understand either.

(AE) How are your relations with Commissioner Füle and Catherine Ashton?

(SY) Very good. The strongest and most positive relationship we have is with the European External Action Service. Our foreign minister talks to Baroness Ashton very regularly on many issues (like the Middle East and beyond), and we have good contacts with her staff. So that is one of the most promising areas, I think.

We know that the Commission is in a tough position because enlargement is not attractive anymore because of the economic crisis in Europe. Decisions have been taken and the Commission is trying to make it happened. The Commission has always been a very progressive institution. They are avant-garde, that is why they came up with the idea of the positive agenda. So we need to help each other.

(AE) What could Turkey bring to the EU?

(SY) Nobody asks this question of any other candidates, of the Poles or the Slovaks … We hope to bring more understanding of the world. Together, Turkey and the EU will be much stronger in the world, economically, commercially and politically. Right now, we are more active in the world. In all international issues, we have something to say, especially in our region. Our trade is expanding, but we have a limit. So does the EU. And we have comparative advantages. So together, we can be more influential in the world, much more soft power, bringing democratic values, rule of law, democracy. And we believe that a Turkish contribution would be helpful because we have a very young population. Our economy is growing (by 8-9% each year). In the past, there was a lot of debate about whether Turkey would be an economic burden on the EU. That has gone now. In fact, we might even be a contributor, who knows, by the time we join, because of our growth rate. So, socially, economically, politically, we can be helpful to the EU.

(AE) What is the opinion of the people in Turkey?

(SY) If you ask them, “Would you like to be a member of the EU?”, they will say yes, but if you ask, “Do you think it will happen?”, they will say no. And lately, as we are more active internationally, more confident in our economy, people are saying “Do we really need the EU?” This is an open question. But at the end, if we conclude the negotiations and if we ask the people, they will probably say yes.

(AE) What is Turkey doing to improve the situation of journalists and freedom of speech often criticised by the EU?

(SY) We know the criticism, we know that the legislation is not enough. There are two points basically: legislation in itself (which is usually pretty good) and implementation (not sufficient). And that is why together with the EU, we have had training courses for judges and prosecutors, and lawyers. On Tuesday 31 January, we forwarded a new law to the parliament regarding freedom of speech and detention. We hope that in two months' time this law will be passed. According to the Ministry of Justice, two million cases will be thrown out because of this law, from small crimes to those that we consider to be terrorist crimes. We do hope that it will change the situation in Turkey and the atmosphere as well, because we take this criticism very seriously. We think that it hurts the image of Turkey. We have to correct this.

(AE) What is the role of Turkey in developments in the Middle East, Iran, Syria and how can you help the EU?

(SY) Especially after what happened last year in the Arab world, we have been trying to help these countries establish democratic rule of law because they are weak on institutions. (…) We ask the European Union to do it together.

We are very worried about what is happening in Syria. There are atrocities, people are being killed, and the situation is very tense there. We had a very strong dialogue with the regime there up until last year, and even after the incidents, we still talk to the regime, to al-Assad, to people and tell them that they have to change and to reform. But he never listens to this. Now he has dug a hole for himself and he cannot get out of it. So the end will unfortunately be probably bloody. We are talking to the EU, the diplomatic service, on what we can do together. We need some UN backing on this, but the Russians are holding out, of course. But we are talking with Baroness Ashton's staff, and also on a bilateral basis with many EU countries, to resolve this issue.

We don't want Iran to have nuclear weapons. We believe that sanctions are not the answer. We believe that dialogue is the best way to pursue this. We need to convince Iran that they are not surrounded by enemies and that they can be a part of the international community. And we are trying to convince them to come back to the negotiating table (3+3). We are trying to be as helpful as possible. We are telling the Iranians to be more forthcoming. (…)

(AE) And what about the peace process between Israel and Palestine?

(SY) We are trying to be active but we have a problem with Israel though we are trying to put this behind us (a reference to the Gaza flotilla). We found ways in which to agree on an apology and compensation, but (Prime Minister) Benjamin Netanyahu was not able to convince his foreign minister on this. So we are stuck in our relationship with Israel. In the peace process, we are talking to the Palestinians (Fatah and Hamas), and we are trying to bring them closer together. (…)

(AE) Will Turkey help the euro area in crisis?

(SY) Well, we had our own crisis in 2000-2001 which is why we were able to withstand the one in 2007-2008, the banking crisis. Our suggestion is that you should follow your own rules, this is what we did, the recipe is there and we have followed this very strictly. We know that the EU did not; they always had exceptions to the rules to the Maastricht criteria. Now the EU has rectified it, with the treaty, the countries will have to put it in the constitution. So our suggestion is to follow your own rules. The new rules have to be enough. There is also the question of confidence of the market, and that is very tricky. (interview by CG and LC)