Jul 20, 2016
Balkanalysis.com editor’s note: the recent failed coup in Turkey has made the country subject of non-stop world attention, with media focusing on politics and speculations over the coup’s sponsors. But largely lost in the current media frenzy has been the pre-existing issue of Turkey-EU cooperation on the migration crisis, the country’s relations with Balkan neighbors, Germany and Britain, as well as many other issues.
Over the past year, the urgent need for managing the migration crisis has accelerated the EU-Turkey dialogue. After long negotiations, Turkey committed to act as a buffer for asylum seekers, in exchange for EU financial assistance and fast-tracking EU visa liberalization for Turkish citizens.
In the following exclusive interview, Balkanalysis.com Brussels contributor Maria-Antoaneta Neag gets the insight of Turkey’s Ambassador to the EU, Selim Yenel, regarding the latest developments in the EU-Turkey dialogue, as well as Turkey’s enhanced role in regional security, in view of the recent coup attempt.
Background: Introducing the Ambassador
With an academic background in political science and a long diplomatic career in the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Selim Yenel has served in posts in Paris (Third Secretary and Second Secretary at the Permanent Representation of Turkey to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development), Kabul (First Secretary at the Turkish Embassy), New York (First Secretary and Counsellor at the Permanent Representation of Turkey to the United Nations) and Brussels (Counsellor and First Counsellor at the Permanent Delegation of Turkey to the European Economic Community). He was also the Turkish Ambassador to Austria from 2005-2009 and, after a short period back in Ankara, has served since December 2011 at Turkey’s Permanent Representation to the EU in Brussels, and will leave for Ankara after the summer.
The Migration Crisis and Visa Liberalization
Maria-Antoaneta Neag: It must have been a very active period for you, taking part in all EU-Turkey negotiations on the migration crisis and visa liberalization. How do you see these negotiations? Is the provisional outcome fair for all parts involved? Would the deal stand? How do the events in Turkey affect these negotiations?
HE Ambassador Selim Yenel: After three summits (meetings of the EU heads of state or government with Turkey), we reached an important deal in which we will actually normalize our relations. For a long time, the relations were unfortunately far apart. I have to say this has been an opportunity to normalize the relations. We had taken enough measures to prevent the flow of illegal migrants but the most important thing was the deal on the 18th of March 2016, because that deal mentioned that Turkey will take back everybody, whoever goes to the Greek islands, whether they are Syrian or non-Syrian, and that was the trick that did it. People saw they would go to the Greek islands for nothing. The traffickers, the smugglers also saw that their lucrative business was coming to an end, and that people won’t spend money to go there if they were going to be sent back.
After the deal was done, we saw the numbers drop dramatically. Before the deal the Germans and others said that success would be measured by the numbers and if it would be as low as three figures, it would have been a success. Now, it’s down to two figures and sometimes none at all, so this is a major success. And this will continue. On this side, we have asked the EU to speed things up and we opened one chapter during the Dutch presidency on their last day, Chapter 33. We have asked that the financial assistance for Syrians to be speeded up. That took some time but now it’s under control.
Thirdly, the most important thing was to obtain an early agreement on visa liberalization. We have fulfilled 67 out of 72 benchmarks but the last five were difficult to achieve in time, and the most difficult one was the change that the EU asked for regarding the terrorism law. As you know there is a lot of terrorist activity going on, not just in my country but all over the world and we expect some understanding from everyone to know that this is going to be difficult to change any legislation.
Hopes for September, but Delays Possible
Nevertheless, during the talks, when we opened the chapter, our foreign minister and the EU minister came here and had held discussions with Frans Timmermans, the first vice-president, and we said that if we can agree on the rest of the benchmarks and that if we know that what the EU wants will not hurt our fight against terrorism, then we can look for ways in which we can come to a mutual understanding. So we haven’t closed the door on this issue.
We hope to have a deal by September, when the European Parliament meets again, first of all because the Commission has the right to write these reports regarding the remaining five benchmarks; secondly, the Council has to give its approval, as well the European Parliament. We are aiming for September.
Now, what has happened in Turkey, because of the attempted coup might delay matters a little longer, though it is too early to say. With regard to what the EU considers very important, the deal itself will stand because nothing has changed in Turkey with regards to our commitments. We believe that the most important thing is that the Syrian crisis comes to an end. This is very difficult. As spill-over, the migration issue is very important for us. I believe people have forgotten that last year people were saying this is an existential issue for the EU. That’s what they were saying. And now it’s gone. The death toll has dramatically dropped. Nobody is dying in the Aegean Sea anymore. People forget the good things and remember unfortunately the bad things and we have to remind them that this deal has been a success and it will continue.
Scenarios for EU Inaction on Visa Liberalization and Turkey’s Likely Response
MN: What are your views on the possible contingencies? Could an EU refusal to fulfil its visa liberalization promises lead to a situation in which Turkey could again allow migrants to go to Greece and follow the Balkan route?
SY: No, this will not be the case. If the EU, despite everything that we’ve done, despite our efforts, if we have fulfilled the criteria and the EU still doesn’t give us visa liberalization then, then we would not apply the readmission agreement.
And that is what we have always said, even before signing it, during the signing of the agreement and afterwards. We said, if we fulfil everything and the EU still does not grant visa-free travel because of political reasons, one reason or another, then we won’t adhere to the readmission agreement, but the migration crisis is something else.
MN: Can the EU manage borders and migration without Turkey- with the help of Greece and other newly created EU bodies or initiatives, such as the European Border Guard, or the Italian Plan for Africa? Could migrants try to go through Cyprus? To your mind, is the EU‘s plan B for the migration crisis without Turkey feasible? Should we still worry about unclear scenarios? What is Turkey’s plan B?
SY: The fact that they want to have this kind of border control is important but that would take time and it’s not going to be easy. The borders are long and large and difficult to manage so they would need cooperation, they would need assistance from third countries. And the best assistance would be coming from Turkey, as we’ve proven it during the last few months. Turkish cooperation, Turkish partnership is essential and we will not shy away from it, so there is no Plan B. There should be no Plan B, there should be only cooperation.
Turkey’s EU Accession: Geography, Religion, Size and BREXIT
MN: In the process of EU accession, when considering Turkey as a candidate country, the geography argument is always resurfacing. Many also fear there is a strong West-East and North-South divide in the country, Istanbul being the only cosmopolitan hub.
This argument was also exacerbated to the brink of misinformation and used in the BREXIT campaign. How would you comment on this? Is Turkey a European country, from a cultural point of view but also geographically? To your mind, what would be Turkey’s greatest contribution to Europe and the EU?
SY: We were very disappointed by the arguments during the BREXIT campaign. They were making a lot of allegations, some of them outright lies, as if Turkey is going to join the EU very soon, as if 12 million Turks are going to come to the UK to live there. These were outright lies and unfortunately the government of the UK did not manage to convince the people of the truth about this, so we were very dismayed.
Regarding the contributions to the EU, Turkey is a European country whether we become members of the EU or not. That has always been the case, historically and geographically. If Cyprus is a member and if Georgia is considered to be a candidate in the future, then Turkey is of course a European country, geographically.
And, the fact that Turks have shown their strong support for democracy during the coup attempt during the last weekend is another demonstration that Turkey has become a truly democratic country. Lastly, I don’t think that we have to prove anything to anybody, because the other countries didn’t have to prove their credentials to become EU members- why do we have to do it?
MN: How much does it matter that Turkey is a populous and mainly Muslim country? Do you see any problem with this? How do people of different religions feel in Turkey? Is it religion or the size of your country that raises the EU’s anxieties?
SY: I think it’s both in Europe. It’s wrong because the EU is a 500 million-person entity and Turkey has 75-76 million people. We are not afraid of joining the EU and we don’t understand why the EU is afraid of Turkey. This is a really strange situation, but is something that we see all the time.
The point is if Turkey joins, it would have the same rights as Germany in the institutions because of our population. That could be the main worry of the Germans, of the French and others, that Turkey would become a powerful member of the EU. So we have to prove that, if we do join, we will not rock the boat, and that we would actually strengthen the EU, that we would support the EU and have nothing against it. And Turkey is a secular country- yes, it’s a Muslim country but France is a Christian country [with a secular government]- the same thing. People shouldn’t read anything into it. You have seen that democracy is much more important than anything else.
MN: We mentioned BREXIT, how would Turkey be affected by this development? If the UK does leave the EU, would this leave a power void?
SY: Up until the referendum was announced, the UK was our strongest supporter in the EU with regard to accession. Since then, that support has gone and if the UK leaves the EU, that would be gone forever.
We believe that the EU should remain strong- and the UK is what makes the EU strong. We are very disappointed with this result. We hope that the negotiations will bring a beneficial result for both sides. I am not sure what kind of exit it will be, it is very early to say, nobody could guess. There will be a lot of factors to consider. Maybe it won’t happen at all and I do hope that it won’t happen at all.
MN: There have already been rumors that Turkey might have its own referendum on EU talks- is this likely?
SY: there is no reason to have a referendum right now, we are not there yet. People made allegations that we could have a referendum but on what grounds I’m not sure, because the negotiations are limited and much depends on the Cyprus question. If there is a solution on Cyprus, then the accession talks can start again but if they fail – this will be the last chance – then there is no possibility of Turkey advancing on accession, so that will already be a de facto way of cutting off negotiations. So we don’t need a referendum on this.
MN: At the beginning of June 2016, the German Parliament passed a resolution on the 1915 Armenian massacre by the Ottoman forces, which stirred the waters and angered Turkey over the Bundestag’s interference in these affairs. The resolution was harshly criticized by Erdogan, who recalled Germany’s own 20th century history, but also by the Armenian Patriarchate in Turkey. Furthermore, Germany pledged to help end the conflict in the Nagorno-Karabakh region. How do you weigh Germany’s role in improving Turkish-Armenian ties?
SY: We don’t need anybody else to help us on this and Germany is the last country to tell us something about these kinds of events.
MN: Is Germany’s position towards Turkey influenced by the traditional German parties? How do you see the future of the German political parties’ configuration and what role could the ethnic Turks of German nationality play in broadening views and political representation?
SY: The Turkish-origin peoeple in Germany have usually voted in one direction, basically for the Social Democrats. Up until recently, this is what we’ve seen. And of course they will look at the situation, at who supports Turkey or not.
We have no influence and we don’t want to have any influence. The Turks themselves can see what they need to see. Turkish-German relations have gone through a lot of difficult times. I am sure that we will get out of it. It is unfortunate, what we are seeing. Fortunately, the Chancellor [Merkel] and the President [Erdogan] talk to each other very often and they are able to overcome the difficulties.
MN: Turkey-Israel relations also went cold for a while, in view of the Mavi Marmara Israeli attack. But Turkey’s “zero problems with neighbors” policy made way for new talks in July 2016. What would be their probable outcome and how would the result read for the security in the region?
SY: Finally we have come to an agreement with Israel and soon we will send ambassadors to each other. This was something that both sides needed, especially with what’s happening in the region, with Syria and other conflicts around there, and especially the fight against Daesh and others. We are very happy that we were able to come to an agreement and this will actually strengthen the democracies in the region.
Turkey-Western Balkan Relations
MN: As this interview is for Balkanalysis.com, which covers the Balkan countries, what are your general comments on the state of bilateral relations with Serbia and Macedonia?
SY: We have excellent relations with all the Western Balkan countries and we have tried to strengthen them. We have supported their accession to either the EU or NATO. In NATO, of course, we have a role to play as we are members there but even in the EU, we have always supported their accession and we had a lot of talks, discussions to share our experiences, so we believe that it’s a good thing to have the Balkan countries in both organizations as soon as possible.
MN: Turkey also plays an important economic role in the Balkan area…
SY: That’s true. We have a lot of investments, a lot of trade going on with all these countries. Turkish Airlines is flying to all of them many times and we attract a lot of tourists from the region to Istanbul and beyond, and we hope they will continue to come despite these terrorist activities, as nowadays such activities happen all around the world.
Managing Refugees from War Zones- a Risky Business
MN: With Turkey being the forefront for migrant waves coming from Syria and the surrounding countries, there are worries that among the migrants, refugees in Turkey or among the Turkish people coming to the EU, there might be ISIS fighters.
SY: We have good cooperation on countering the foreign terrorist fighters, good information sharing with regard to people coming from the EU in support of Daesh. We stop them at the border or if we have information, we send them back. This cooperation has been going on for three or four years already and therefore we believe that this cooperation will continue as it affects all of us.
MN: Do you think the refugee situation currently dealt by Turkey is among the factors adding to the risk of terrorist attacks (such as the tragic Ataturk airport one)?
SY: Nobody can be safe anywhere in the world because of these terrorist attacks. In Turkey, there are close to three million refugees and it is very difficult to know who is who. So we always have this danger and that’s why we are trying to have more control, but you can never be sure about these things.
MN: Any last comments you would like to share with us?
SY: We need each other. The EU and Turkey need each other. We hope that the normalization of relations that has happened over the last year will continue as strong as before. We need the support of the EU for democracy in Turkey, as we have stood against the attempted coup and nobody should be worried about the future as we uphold the same values, such as human rights and the rule of law.
*Note: Maria shares her personal views, which are intended to be neutral and for research purposes. They do not necessarily reflect the official position of the European Parliament.