Ambassador: ‘Turkey punished over Cyprus’

Preemptive vetoes against Turkey’s EU accession stemming from regional tensions are unjust and its readiness to join the bloc should be based the country’s capacity to fulfil the requirements of the ‘acquis communautaire’, Turkish Ambassador to Germany Ahmet Acet told EURACTIV Germany in an interview.

Ahmet Acet has been Turkey’s ambassador to Germany since 2008. A long-serving diplomat, he has covered positions ranging from ambassador to Belgrade to deputy secretary of state for European affairs. 

He was speaking to EURACTIV Germany’s Ewald König, Michael Kaczmarek and Alexander Wragge. 

To read a shortened version of this interview, please click here

Ambassador Acet: Germany’s new government does not really support Turkey’s membership of the EU. Are you disappointed? 

Germany has very strong ties with Turkey. If we consider the coalition treaty of conservatives and liberals, we cannot complain about the EU membership of Turkey. We feel that Germany is acting in full commitment to its normal policy, which is to maintain the negotiations with Turkey. We know that Germany has a very strong tradition of abiding by its agreements. This is also a European value. 

Can you really be satisfied with the German position though? Chancellor Merkel supports a ‘privileged partnership’ for Turkey, not membership. 

We would like to see Germany taking a stronger role in preventing Turkey’s accession problems on the political side. Elements which have nothing to do with the negotiations have been attached to the negotiations – the Cyprus problem is an example. The result is that Turkey is not in a position to open eight new chapters or to close any chapter. That is not fair. No other candidate country ever faced a similar situation. This is a form of punishment. We want our friends to help more to solve the Cyprus problem, using their influence. The big members need to show leadership and to prove that they are in a position to solve issues rather than observe them. 

Do you think the question of Turkey’s accession is abused for election campaigns? 

If you observe Germany, France and some other countries in pre-election times, you always see some kind of sentiment being expressed against Turkey’s accession and enlargement in general. Of course, this is not helpful. If Nicolas Sarkozy or Angela Merkel say something that is damaging the Turkish EU interest, people start believing that the whole EU does not want them – that is blatantly not true. This affects our motivation, but we need to fortify it since it is in everyone’s interest that Turkey becomes a full member. These statements of politicians in pre-electoral periods do not really help.

What should Germany do to promote pro-EU feelings in Turkey? 

All they have to do is to carry on with ‘business as usual’. That is all what we ask. The Council decided in 2005 to start negotiations with Turkey. They set up the negotiation framework, which defines the process and the chapters of the accession path. This is the ‘bible’ we follow. All we demand is to let us do our homework and carry on doing what we need to do to become a member of the EU. Proceed on the path of reform and endeavour to fulfil the political criteria. 

What do you make of criticism aired in Germany of Turkey’s potential EU accession? 

The biggest mistake most of these politicians make is to look at today’s Turkey which is still imperfect: I can admit it even as an ambassador. They should look at tomorrow’s Turkey when negotiations will be completed. We have only opened eleven of thirty-five chapters. We have to foresee the future Turkey, one which has reached the average standards of the European Union. 

Economically we already exceed the average standards. Europe is our strongest business partner. Turkey is the 17th biggest economy in the world. Judge us not by what we are today. Judge us from what we will be tomorrow. And when this tomorrow comes, we won’t disagree if you don’t want us in. Make your decision then. 

This is how it should be. But if you say today that Turkey is not European or it should not be a member or it should be a ‘privileged partner’ – this is like changing the rules in the middle of a football game, allowing one team to play with two balls instead of one. This is unfair. This attitude translates into the general sentiment for which Turkish people believe that Turkey can join the EU, but the EU does not want Turkey. 

Would it really no problem if the EU said ‘no’ to Turkey after all these years of negotiations? 

Sure. If Turkey had completed the full negotiation, we would have reached a very good standard of living, thanks to modern European laws regarding the environment, good governance and democratisation. Having these standards we should be in the position of being self-confident about our future. We would have fixed our domestic problems. These are of course predictions. Today one thing is sure: all Turkish governments and leaders are strongly in favour of Turkey’s accession. This is part of our identity. Since Turkey became a republic in 1923 we have turned our heads to the West. 

Do you think the EU is ‘fit’ to integrate Turkey? 

The Turkish public is not very aware of European matters – it is rather more concentrated on the negotiations and the Cyprus problem. They don’t know what the Lisbon Treaty means or the ‘principle of subsidiarity’. It is going to be a shock when the Turkish public learns about the realities in the EU. I do not complain, but the time will come. The Turkish will then have to decide themselves whether they want to join or not. 

Do you think the German public understands the significance of Turkey? 

If there is a country in Europe that understands the significance of Turkey, that country is Germany. In terms of geographical distance Germany and Turkey are far apart, but in terms of relationships there is a closeness that not many people fully grasp. It is not so much for the four million German tourists who come to Turkey every year; it is more the presence of the huge Turkish community in Germany, which positively or negatively has left some part of its culture in the country. 

Any German would understand a Turk more than an American or a Brit. That is why I believe that Germans would probably understand the importance of Turkey’s membership of the EU much better than others. The German government understands it perfectly; we have many converging interests: the Middle East, the Caucasus, oil – to name only a few. 

But many people cannot really imagine Turkey as part of the EU… 

There is a lack of vision when it comes to how and why Turkey can be part of the European Union. I will not drop any names, but if you look at some of the new members, then you will see that there is a missing link. 

If the EU wants to become a soft power, without Turkey you would not go anywhere, I can assure you. We will always be in this key position in conflict areas, that we can always steal the show from the Europeans. But why steal the show when you can share it? This is something that people with vision should be able to see. 

Turkey plays a central role in EU energy policy. Turkey is needed to support the Nabucco and South Stream gas pipelines. But the projects compete with each other… 

Turkey supports any project which builds up energy security and diversification of sources. Of course South Stream is not that strongly supported, because Nabucco will cross Turkey on land as well and bring benefits to us as well. But you cannot be against anything like South Stream, which will reinforce energy supply and energy security. The two pipelines are competitors to a certain extent, but at the same time they are representing the same interests: energy diversification. 

In general we can say that there are so many interests in this area with regard to geopolitics, migration and energy, that Turkey is always likely to play a key role in them. 

The official claim of Turkish foreign policy is ‘we have zero problems with our neighbours’. Can you really have both good relations with the EU and Iran? 

Imagine Germany had a neighbour like Iran. Can you have bad relations with a neighbour which has lived next to you for an eternity? Turkey does not have the luxury of maintaining bad relations with its neighbours. 

If we can be successful with our so called ‘zero-problem policy’ – which is extremely difficult by the way – we are in a very strong position to solve the regional problems. One example: in the past we had conflicts with Syria because of the Kurdish organisation PKK and the water supply; today we have excellent relations with Syria. 

Since they improved, the Southern Turkish provinces have boomed economically because of cross-border trade. We have this type of trade with Syria, Iraq, Iran, and Azerbaijan. This is why we want to mend our fences with Armenia. This policy stems from the idea that any serious conflict with our neighbours will have an immediate economic effect on the people who live in the vicinity. The West should keep this in mind. 

Is your policy misunderstood in the West? 

What I want to say is: nobody in Turkey really wants to act as a big power that is going to rule the game in the Middle East. We just want peace. We want the Middle East to be safe and secure. We want the Gaza and Palestine issues to be solved. We know that the economic benefits of peace are so big that nobody would lose. Turkey is one country which will benefit extremely from peace in the Middle East – when the borders are open and people can travel freely. 

But Turkish policy towards Iran could be understood as appeasement… 

No, but before it comes to UN sanctions against Iran, we want to make sure that all possibilities of finding a solution are exhausted. That’s why our prime minister and our foreign minister have travelled to Iran and have talked to the political leaders there. And they talked to the other side, the West, signalling that there is still more ‘space of manoeuvre’. Nonetheless we are a responsible member of the International Community and the Security Council: Turkey will follow every decision taken by the UN. But Iran is our neighbour and we are among the few countries which still have strong contacts with them – we want to make sure that everything is done to avoid a tough confrontation. 

Let us turn to another topic. Turkey’s economic growth is projected to reach 5% in 2010. Is the crisis over? 

Financially we did a good job in handling the crisis. We had our own crisis in 2001 which resulted from a mismanaged banking system. Thanks to the reforms we undertook after 2001 to restructure the economy and bring the ‘wild’ banks under very stringent control, we had a good position in the actual crisis. No bank has gone bankrupt; the government did not have to bail out any bank. The problems of some European banks had some effects in Turkey. 

We are very export-oriented. The huge global crisis affected us like Germany: less export, less production and more unemployment. The government helped with tax incentives and supported the purchase of new cars by decreasing the rate of VAT. To sum up: we managed to stay afloat. The best indication that things are going well is that the rating agencies have improved Turkey’s outlook. If you are an investor and have a lot of money to spend in Turkey, I would definitely tell you to go ahead. Our own structural reforms and the EU reforms as well improve foreign direct investment (FDI) in Turkey. It is an easy place to invest during these troubled times – safer than other countries. 

In recent weeks we had another debate about Islamic culture in Europe. How would you sum up the Swiss minaret controversy? 

It was kind of a shocking result for anybody who believes in human rights and in the right to build places of worship. Turkey was criticised for a long time in the past, because we had laws that made it difficult for non-muslims to build places of worship. But we changed our laws in the course of our negotiations with the EU, and now we are picture-perfect. Now I am in a position to criticise the Swiss decision because we have no restrictions on worship. I think the result of the vote on the minaret comes from misperceptions. They don’t know very much about Islam: they do not know that it is a peaceful religion. 

Second, in a time when we encourage everybody to build up an alliance of civilisations after 9/11, it was a shock that this decision was made in one of the countries which has the highest standards in democratic values. I hope it will not have negative percussions in the Islamic world or in the EU like the Danish ‘caricature case’. Things like that are not helpful when we want to bring cultures together. I think it has done more harm than good. 

What can we learn from it? 

Every country needs the highest standards of tolerance when it comes to freedom of worship and religion. I think Germany sets a good example when it comes to the tolerance of religions. We have to be very sensitive to the ‘other’, to those who are different in terms of culture or race or religion. The East and the West should have a better understanding of their sensitivities. 

What was the reaction in Turkey? 

Some politicians made very strong statements. I understand that the Swiss government made conciliatory statements in the sense that Switzerland wants to remedy the situation and to correct the mistake. That was more or less well-received in Turkey. 

Turkey and Spain are co-chairmen of the UN ‘Alliance of Civilisations’ initiative. This alliance started immediately after the caricature crisis. The aim is to bring cultures together. This is why Turkey has a special responsibility on this kind of issue. 

Are there any signs of a boycott? 

One of our politicians wanted a boycott of Swiss banks, but this was probably an emotional statement. It is not our official policy. Turkey is a secular country. There is no national representation of Islam. 

The question of migration is being discussed in many EU countries. What can a government do to ensure successful integration of immigrants? 

The fact that the government has its own integration policy is already a very positive step. Germany has recognised that it has a lot of migrants who are here to stay need to be integrated. Recognition of this fact is a very good beginning. Denying it would mean living in an ostrich-like fashion with your head stuck in the sand. On the other side, in order to live happily in a country, you have to feel secure, but you also have to feel accepted. If somebody does not feel secure and accepted, he will not be happy and successful in this country. 

Second and third-generation immigrants often report problems with their identity. What would you say: are they Turkish or German?

Those who carry a German passport are German. Those who carry a Turkish one are Turkish. We encourage the Turkish community to take up German citizenship if they have decided to stay here. To take it means to be a responsible citizen, to participate in the elections and to contribute to the German way of life. Otherwise you remain as a guest. This is not enough. If you are not a German citizen, why should you live here forever? 

We encourage people to take German citizenship in good times and in bad times. You can see this right now: people from Turkey taking a share in national disasters like the rampage of Winnenden. They are sad if the German national soccer team loses a game. If you have this kind of sharing, you might be deemed to be integrated. 

But how can you take a share if you still watch Turkish TV and don’t speak German, like some Turks? 

You are putting your finger on exactly the problem. The whole point is to raise awareness in the Turkish community: if their children do not learn proper German, they remain as a lost case and will eventually fade away in life. We want them to be responsible for their children. Television has a lot to do with identity. 

In the same way as an Italian will remain an Italian, a German will remain a German within their heart, because they are are born there and their parents are there. But in minds and hearts, a member of the Turkish community should also be part of Germany. I see a young generation that is closer to Germany than to Turkey. 

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