Ambassador Selim Yenel, leader of the Permanent Delegation of Turkey to the EU, recently defended Turkey’s interests in the EU during several meetings at the European Parliament, allowing Balkanalysis.com contributor Maria-Antoaneta Neag the opportunity to survey the ambassador on the latest developments in the EU-Turkey dialogue, as well as Turkey’s enhanced role in regional security.
With an academic background in political science and a long diplomatic career in the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Selim Yenel was assigned to 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.
Symbolic Resistance and Stereotypes against Turkey
EU public opinion is generally restrained, or opposed outright to Turkish membership. The degrees of intensity here differ from one Member State to another, and take into account national political agendas. Among the reasons set forward by politicians are Turkey’s poor record on human rights, its controversial borders, its migration potential and the fact that Turkey is allegedly outside Europe’s geographic, cultural and symbolic borders. Given this general attitude, is Turkey undertaking any current initiatives aimed to changing these stereotypes, and making a better case for the country’s added value to the EU?
The Ambassador emphasized that this is “a country-to-country undertaking and in this sense leadership is essential. If all parties from the political scene of a country are against Turkey, inevitably the public opinion in that country will be against Turkey as well. This was the case in Austria, where I served as an Ambassador.”
Turkey has a strategy for the other sort of countries, too. “Regarding the remaining critics, we are trying to do our homework and tangible improvements can already be spotted. There are several laws that will be passed during the summer addressing some key problems.”
Commenting on the issue of Islam being perceived as a threat to the EU, he mentioned that many European politicians argue that EU is a Christian-led project: “all EU countries have Muslim minorities, but this is the key word: minorities.”
Asked whether Turkish lobbyists, associations, businessmen or Turkish living abroad are helpful in the EU efforts, Mr. Yenel mentioned that while Turkish citizens who live abroad and did not integrate in their host country do not serve Turkey’s EU interests, there are some lobbyists and Turkish associations that sometimes have proven helpful at improving Turkey’s image.
Proficient Turkish Representatives in the EU
Turkish representatives in Brussels are very well educated and prepared to confront the challenges of the EU perspective. However, many politicians fear that average Turkish citizens have not shown they possess the same abilities and understanding of EU topics.
The Ambassador replied that in every MS there is a gap between ‘normal’ citizens and European decision-makers. There are numerous technicalities involved, he underscored, and this makes it difficult to explain the EU’s decisions to the EU. Even though the Euro-sceptics are growing in number throughout Europe, Turkish citizens continue to see the EU’s achievements as appealing, though these are actually “usually taken for granted by EU citizens,” attested Ambassador Yenel, who also mentioned his concern at the rise of xenophobia and nationalism within EU.
Turkey- Too Big a Country for the EU?
Under the provisions of the Lisbon Treaty, from 2014/2017, a system known as ‘double majority voting’ will be introduced in the Council. For a legislative proposal to go through, the support of two types of majority will be needed: 55% of EU countries (minimum 15) and at least 65% of the EU population. Since Turkey has such a numerous population, under this new system, it can have a good position for achieving the requisite majorities, thus promoting its interests. Is this looming provision one of the reasons explaining some MS’ reticence towards accepting Turkey as a MS?
The Ambassador replied that this is not a concerning issue. When a country will accede to the EU, the figures in the “European architecture” will have to change. If it becomes an EU member, Turkey will most probably receive the same number of MEPs and votes as Germany. Unfortunately, big countries like Germany and France are not willing to share their power and this may be a cause of concern for Turkey.
For this reason, it is important that “the Turkish relationships with Germany and France are the first ones to be assessed,” the ambassador stated. Turkey had some difficulties with France during Sarkozy’s presidency, but the political changes following the elections make it high time for the dialogue to advance, added the ambassador.
Despite the fact that Turkey is showing good economic results in a time of crisis, and that it has started some long-awaited reforms, it remains highly criticized by the EU, mainly over freedom of press and minorities-related issues. Given the situation, an important question concerns which issues Turkey should work on most thoroughly, and how the EU could assist the process to progress in a more efficient way? The ambassador sought to point out some examples of positive developments achieved by Turkey due to the EU perspective.
For Ambassador Yenel, the new EU Commission-launched “positive agenda”, that foresees joint progress by both the Commission and Turkey on the chapters that have been blocked so far, is a positive sign. (The Commission came up with this idea to revive Turkey’s EU momentum).
Enhancing the EU’s institutional coherence (in light of existing divergent opinions between the Commission, Parliament and Council) can be useful in the actual advancement of the EU dialogue and enlargement strategies in general, the ambassador also mentioned. He noted too that the EU has no more economic concerns regarding Turkey. However, he conceded that Turkey’s business success, the trade volume between Turkey and EU or the economic aspect in general does not really have an influence on the EU’s agenda.
Turkey – a Hazardous Adventure for the EU?
Another cause of concern expressed by some countries is Turkey’s foreign policy, and in particular its difficult relations with Cyprus and Israel. Moreover, the EU is apprehensive about having such powerful neighbors at its borders (i.e. Syria, Iran and Iraq).
“It’s not the EU that will have to defend the borders- the Turks will be the ones living here and not any other Member State citizens,” noted the ambassador when asked about the issue. “So we will be facing them. The EU has no reason to fear, as Turkey is already NATO’s border as well.”
Commenting further on Turkey’s relationship with its neighbors, he mentioned that a couple of years back, Turkey was trying to be a mediator between Syria and Israel. They have always tried to keep a good relationship with Israel, he added. On Cyprus, the ambassador explained that Turkey is proactively seeking a solution for the island, and that the Republic of Cyprus is not considered an enemy.
The United Nations finds itself at a standstill here, as EU member states failed to properly voice their positions, and no action has thus been taken on Syria, out of fears of Russia or Iran who have different standpoints. This in turn complicates Turkey’s position vis-à-vis the countries still favoring the regime in Syria.
In addressing this issue, Mr. Yenel emphasized that this situation can change and that Russian or Iranian policy positions might also experience shifts in the future based on the developments on the ground in Syria. Turkey is cautious, and seeks to avoid conflict, he added. Even in the context of the recent Turkish warplane downing without prior warning by Syrian forces, Turkey refrained from retaliation or any military action whatsoever, concluded the ambassador.
New Natural Resources
As Balkanalysis.com reported in January 2012, considerable reserves of natural gas have been discovered off of Cyprus. According to the US Geological Survey, there are 122 trillion cubic feet of gas, almost double the reserves of all EU countries combined.
Addressing this, Ambassador Yenel first underlined the need for accurate estimation. “We don’t really know how much gas there is. However, if the Greek Cypriots will start the exploitation, you can be sure you’ll see the Turkish Cypriot drilling ships right next to them.”
This discovery of gas in the Levantine Basin will thus quite possibly have an effect on Turkish policies. “Any discovery of natural resources in the area has to be shared by both Greek and Turkish Cypriots,” maintained Yenel.
Visa liberalisation is one of the most sensitive topics for Turkey. Visa dialogues have been advancing with Russia and other Eastern Partnership countries and even with the oft-controversial case of Kosovo. The migration potential issue has been often raised by the countries opposing a a straightforward visa approach for Turkey.
“Turkey does not want to rebuild any empire,” attested Ambassador Yenel, when asked about public speculation that Turkey wishes to rebuild the Ottoman Empire by means of a demographic surge. “That was in the past. The EU fears possible waves of migrants from Turkey, but experience shows that with the new economic developments in Turkey, more and more Turkish citizens living abroad are deciding to come back and look for their opportunities at home. In the past, the EU similarly feared the Eastern European migrants’ invasion, but the reality on the ground showed that this was not the case.”
In the interview, the ambassador also expressed his disappointment regarding the long waiting period for the visa liberalization roadmap. The EU has justified this delay by the lack of a readmission agreement. “Turkey waited for the Council’s decision to give the Commission the mandate to negotiate and sign with Turkey the readmission agreement,” he pointed out. “Following the signing of this agreement on 21 June 2012, the green light was given for opening a comprehensive visa dialogue which may lead to the liberalisation of visas in the Schengen area in the years to come,” he revealed.
Turkey’s Presence in the Western Balkans
Both Turkey and Russia have a special interest in the Western Balkans. Turkey has a special affinity with the Balkans, dating from the Ottoman times. However, the ambassador stressed that “there is no competition concerning EU accession. Turkey wants to play a special role in the Balkans. Important investments have been done in the Western Balkans and other countries, such as Romania.”
Reaffirming the country’s vision of itself as an enabler of wider growth, the ambassador added that “Turkey’s policy in this sense is that if the economic and social situation in these countries improves, it will serve everyone’s interest.”
When Patience is a Virtue
Concluding the interview, Ambassador Yenel was asked how long he anticipates that Turkey will have to wait to receive a coherent answer from the EU, and a provisional target accession date. Moreover, in the best-case scenario – one in which Turkey fulfils the remaining commitments with regard to the EU aquis – it becomes important to predict what message the EU might send to Turkey.
“Turkey is still patient and will continue to work hard to achieve the EU’s requested benchmarks,” stated the ambassador. “The moment when all concerns will be addressed will be a victory for Turkey.” Nevertheless, he concluded that the EU’s feedback for Turkey, when that moment arrives, remains unknown for now.
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