Selim Yenel: The EU lacks vision for Cyprus reunification

Yenel Selim [Georgi Gotev]

If the Cyprus issue is solved, a lot could be done for the Eastern Mediterranean, for Turkish-Greek relations, for new sources of gas for the EU. But the EU unfortunately lacks a visionary perspective, Selim Yenel, Turkey’s Ambassador to the EU, told EURACTIV in an exclusive interview.

He spoke to EURACTIV’s Senior Editor, Georgi Gotev.

Selim Yenel is a career diplomat. He has served in Afghanistan, at the UN in New York, as Ambassador to Austria, and as Deputy Undersecretary for European Affairs.

At a recent event in Brussels, Cypriot Foreign Minister Ioannis Kasoulides questioned Turkey’s determination to fight ISIS. What would you say in reply?

That is what I have also heard in the European Parliament, and we are rather disturbed and dismayed by this, because we are at the forefront. We are neighbours of this terrorist group, we have denounced them as a terrorist group, and we are doing all that we can to fight them.

If you remember, about 6 or 7 months ago, they captured Mosul, took over our consulate and held [the personnel] hostage for more than 100 days, and we found a way to get them back unharmed. Then we had the tomb of Suleyman Shah in Syria – that’s the tomb of the grandfather of the founding father of the Ottoman Empire Osman, which has always been protected by a contingent of Turkish soldiers. That was also surrounded by ISIS, so we sent in the army one night, got the tomb, took it out, and safeguarded our soldiers.

For us, ISIS is a terrorist organisation. We just signed an agreement with the Americans to train and equip the Free Syrian army. For us, [Bashar] Assad and Daesh [the other name for ISIS] are the same thing: they are a big threat to the stability of Syria, of Iraq, and therefore there is a big fight against them. That is why we want the coalition to fight not only against Daesh, but also against Assad. For Turkey, there is no question that IS, ISIS, Daesh, or however you want to call them, is a terrorist organisation, that what they are doing is awful. I can categorically say that we are doing more than enough. We are at the forefront of the fight.

We now have almost 2 million refugees in Turkey; 1.7 million are Syrians, and the rest are Iraqis, so I think that Turkey is doing more than its fair share. But this does not seem to be appreciated by the European Parliament, or other organisations, and this is surprising. If the same number of refugees arrived in the EU what would happen? Already, the equivalent of the population of Estonia has arrived in our country; it will soon be equal to Lithuania. This illustrates the scale of the refugee problem.

Western media, even here in Belgium, criticise Turkey for not forbidding “foreign fighters” from transiting to Syria. How do you respond?

I’m glad you asked that. First of all, we need more information on who is who. Every year we have around 34 million tourists coming to Turkey, and what we are talking about here is a few thousand people that come to Turkey to cross into Syria. Now, if we don’t know who they are, how do we stop them? By their looks? By how they behave? That’s not possible!

In the last two years, we have had more and more cooperation with EU countries, and we have returned 10,000 people because of the information we were given. We were able to turn them back at the borders. We have been able to send back about 1,000 after they crossed into Turkey. But sometimes they pass through. We cannot control everybody.

And the governments here have an issue with data protection. They are not always able to pass on information. The latest example is the girls from the UK: the parents only found out later and they passed on the information to the British authorities, but by the time they shared it with us it was already too late, they had already crossed.

Your Western allies criticise your country on a number of issues. Some articles were even published in the Turkish press, about human rights deteriorating in Turkey. And human rights is a recurrent issue in the Commission’s progress reports.

Right now, there is a very lively debate on these issues in Turkey. What we want from the Commission is to open chapters 23 and 24 [Chapters of the accession negotiations: Judiciary and fundamental rights and Justice, freedom and security], which deal directly with these issues, but they are blocked because of the Greek Cypriots.

We are doing our best, but it would be better to do it with the help of the Commission. Nevertheless, we have found a way in which we can talk to the Commission on these issues. We will soon have a committee meeting on chapter 23 to discuss at least on a technical basis what needs to be done. The reform process has gone on for a long time; but we need to make more progress.

We feel it is unfair that the EU has not been unable to open these chapters. The European Parliament wants to open it, the Commission and all the member states want to open it, but the Greek Cypriots are holding out. I am surprised, because it is not in their interests either.

Nevertheless, it is a lively, ongoing debate in Turkey, and we are ready to do as much as possible to have the best human rights standards. In our latest legislation, we have borrowed as much as possible from the legislation of the EU member states. But we are doing it on our own and we need the help and guidance of the Commission.

I’m not a Turkey specialist, but one issue I find disturbing is the pre-trial detention periods, which sometimes are very long. Why doesn’t your country simply change its legislation and abolish it?

That has been a persistent issue, and the Minister of Justice himself is dealing with it. We have made some reforms, but we want to go further. It is a package that has to be put together. I don’t know where we are on that, but it is a big issue in Turkey at the moment.

Another thing I find disturbing are attempts to limit Twitter, which is a very popular in Turkey. This leaves a very bad impression.

I think that was wrongly misinterpreted as well. With Twitter and Facebook, some people were making insults to certain people. At that time, the authorities got in touch with the owners of Facebook and Twitter to say they should shut down those accounts. At that time, there was no way to do this on an individual basis, so for a short while, they shut down Twitter and Facebook.

There was an immediate reaction in the country, so new legislation was passed in Turkey, according to which only those accounts that are insulting people can be closed down after a court order. Twitter now also acknowledges this, and it is something that happens in some EU countries, too. Until then, there was no legislation to deal with this situation, and if you wanted to shut something down, you shut down the whole thing, which was wrong. But the legislation was passed last year, so it has been taken care of.

A general impression many of us abroad have is that when people protest in Turkey, the repression can be very harsh. That’s why many say Turkey is becoming an authoritarian state.

I have seen very harsh reactions in many EU countries at times. I would rather not name the countries but I have seen it. The fact that we are a candidate country put us under the spotlight, but it is no different than what we see elsewhere, and the judicial system works. If some sort of abuse has taken place, the courts are there to deal with it. Sometimes excesses do take place, of course, but it is not more than what we see in EU countries.

Your message to the EU is ‘Let’s open chapters 23 and 24, and move on’?

We want to open chapters 23 and 24, but even if we can’t we will still continue the reforms. It makes sense for everyone to say that we can open them and have a more official and high level debate on these issues. Right now we are doing it at a technical level. We are doing most of it on our own, and it is being blocked.

The energy chapter is also being blocked, for example. What does that help? There are so many other important things. Yes, we want to solve the Cyprus issue. It is in our interest and we have the incentive, because if we don’t solve it, we will not make any progress with the accession process. That is obvious. But it cannot be done one-sidedly. The EU has to hold the Greek Cypriots accountable, and they have to meet us half way.

If we solve the Cyprus issue, so much will be done. All the Eastern Mediterranean, Turkish-Greek relations, gas for the EU, so many positive things will happen. So we have the incentive, but we don’t see that much happening on the EU side. They don’t see it from a big, visionary perspective. It is surprising.

Isn’t the Cyprus issue something for the Greek Cypriots and the Turkish Cypriots to decide, with the help of the UN? Officially Turkey, Greece, and the EU are not involved.

On the contrary, I think they should help as well. The Turkish Cypriots and the Greek Cypriots see Turkey and Greece as the motherlands, and they have a stake in the argument. As you know, the Greek Cypriots want to negotiate with Turkey. They see us as the ones that hold the power there. We say that the two communities have to negotiate together. The UN is there to help as well. And the EU has to see the bigger picture.

Turkey and the Turkish Cypriots are ready to make a deal, but we don’t see the same thing on the Greek Cypriot side. Greece is unfortunately preoccupied with its economic situation. They cannot concentrate on anything else right now, and this is a negative situation for finding a solution. We need guarantees for both sides, not only for the Turkish Cypriots, but for the Greek Cypriots, as well. This can be done. We have always said this, but unfortunately the political will still does not exist.

The new Turkish government has signalled a political will to revive the country’s EU integration. Where are we now with this?

The integration strategies are still going on. We have a two-track approach. As I told you the accession process is not moving ahead, so what we are doing is at least trying to make our administration ready in the next 5 years. Mr Juncker said there would be no enlargement for at least the next 5 years. We will use this time frame to prepare ourselves with the acquis, and harmonise our country with the EU in every area.

The second track will be to increase dialogue in all fields. We already have a political dialogue. Next, we will have an economic dialogue. Then, beginning next week, an energy dialogue with the Commissioners and the relevant ministries.

We are also upgrading the [EU-Turkey] customs union. It has just reached its 20th anniversary last Friday, and it is out of date, to a certain extent, it is too narrow. TTIP, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, has pushed us to expand our customs union into many other sectors, so for the next few years, we will negotiate an upgrade of the customs union.

In addition to that there, is the visa dialogue, the readmission agreement, and one day Turkish citizens not having to have a visa to go through the Schengen border. We also want to participate in ministerial meetings and summits. For example, last week, our minister was in Gymnich [the informal foreign affairs ministerial in Riga].

We have elections in Turkey in June, but afterwards all this will be speeded up much more. This is already happening. Mr Maroš Šef?ovi? [Vice-President for Energy Union] will visit us next week, and then in April we will have a political dialogue between the foreign minister and Mrs. Mogherini and {Neighbourhood Commissioner] Johannes Hahn, and then we have the association council. So all these things are already in the pipeline. 

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