Turkish Ambassador: EU accession is our strategic choice

Yusuf Ziya Özcan [Polonyadan.com]

Turkey upholds “European values” much better than some EU countries, the Turkish Ambassador to Poland, Yusuf Ziya Özcan, told EURACTIV Poland.

Yusuf Ziya Özcan is Turkey’s Ambassador to Poland.

Özcan spoke with EURACTIV Poland’s Krzysztof Kokoszczy?ski before Turkey shot down a Russian fighter jet on Tuesday (24 November).

Turkey has been a candidate to join the EU longer than anyone else in the Union’s history. What is the current sentiment in the country towards the EU?

Since the Turkish people desire a prosperous future with other European nations on the basis of common values, they retain their strong support for EU accession.

However, it is true that there has been a significant decline in the faith of our citizens in Turkey’s accession.

This is due to the political hurdles we face in our accession process, as well as the negative attitude and statements of certain European statesmen.

How does Turkey see its future relations with the EU? Is full membership the only goal?

Accession to the EU is our strategic choice and would be a natural outcome of our negotiations. We reject all other alternatives other than full membership in the EU. What we expect from our European friends is to honour their earlier promises. We cannot accept a change of rules in the middle of the game.

The EU has recently criticised certain interventions of the Turkish government in the judiciary. How was this criticism received in Ankara, and how, if at all, will it impact the relationship?

The judiciary is independent in Turkey and we strongly adhere to the rule of law, and the principle of the separation of powers. We are open to every criticism, as long as they are objective and constructive.

To this end, we see such criticism as input which we can take into consideration in our reform process which aims to secure the best standards for the Turkish citizens.

Turkey, according to estimates, has taken in more than 2 million Syrian refugees, which is understandably a source of pride. Yet, refugees complain that they do not have access to jobs and services such as education and healthcare. How much of a burden are the refugees on Turkey, and what are Turkish plans for them?

Sharing not only a border, but also history and culture, we pursue an “open door” policy for Syrians without any form of discrimination. Turkey is now hosting more refugees than any other country in the world. The total number of Syrians living in Turkey is around 2.2 million.

260,000 Syrians are accommodated in 25 temporary protection centres and provided with food, non-food items, health and education services, as well as psychological assistance, vocational training and social activities. Syrians living outside these centres are also enjoying a protective regime, benefitting from free health care.

The attitude of Turkish society to migrants, refugees, asylum seekers and people under temporary protection has always been one of tolerance, sympathy and solidarity.

Naturally, we will spare no efforts to strengthen international cooperation with a view to protect human lives and improve living conditions of Syrians.  I would like to be frank that by providing protection, assistance and services to the Syrians, Turkey indeed upholds “European values” much better than some of the EU countries.

Would Turkey ask for EU support in this respect? And if so, what would Turkey need from the EU the most?

We feel that there is a clear deficit of solidarity on the part of the international community on burden-sharing with respect to the Syrian crisis. We have so far spent $8 billion for the care of Syrians. It is neither fair nor realistic to expect Turkey to single-handedly shoulder both the migratory pressures and the national security threats emanating from Syria. Definitely burden-sharing is needed on this issue. It is a positive development that the EU wants to provide substantial financial assistance.

It would be useful to receive more support by international community with regard to health, education and social services for these people who are not going back anytime soon. Particularly when the assistance is directly related to the needs of nutrition and education, one-time and so-called quick impact projects will certainly not deliver any meaningful benefit. Sustainable assistance in health and education in particular is important.

In terms of the Kurdish minority in Turkey, it seemed for a while that the peace process was going well, with a decreased number of attacks and increased rights for Turkish citizens of Kurdish ethnicity. However, recently there has been an upsurge in violence. What caused it?

Turkey has been countering terrorism in all forms and manifestations. During the past four years, the Turkish government has heavily invested in bold steps to end PKK terrorism. We addressed cultural and social-economic grievances particularly voiced by our citizens of Kurdish ethnic origin, and developed a dialogue process so as to provide the necessary grounds for peaceful and democratic politics.

We would have been ready and willing to go further on that process had the PKK fulfilled its promise to take its armed elements out from our territory. However, they didn’t. Instead, they have tried to take advantage of the situation in Syria and Iraq.

They thought by fighting ISIL terrorists, they would have carte blanche from the international community to continue their own terrorism towards Turkey. It has to be born in mind that the PKK is a terrorist organisation, which killed tens of thousands of innocent people.

This terrorist organisation does not want to lose its influence and control, which includes substantial financial means.

Speaking of IS, what is your view on its capabilities? Do you think there is a risk of their spreading to other neighbouring countries?

Since the beginning of the Syrian crisis, we have informed and warned our international partners regarding the growing threat of radical groups in Syria.

ISIL is rooted in Syria and Iraq due to sectarian, exclusionary and conflicting policies and practices in the past. The attacks of ISIL clearly demonstrated the necessity that the “foreign terrorist fighters’ phenomenon” should be handled in a wider security perspective.

Turkey is at the forefront of the ISIL threat, and our authorities exert every effort to counter it.

What is Turkey’s long-term plan for Syria?

First of all, the international community must focus on rapidly addressing the root causes of the problem. The injustices of the Assad regime are the main plague in the country. Assad should not run in the presidential elections, which are supposed to be held in 18 months after the formation of a transitional government.

In addition to diplomatic efforts, we have to provide security on the ground. Setting up “humanitarian safe areas” in the north of Syria would be useful. By having it, asylum seekers could return to their countries. The project is not only to provide a safe area, but to build towns, infrastructures and housing.

There is still a big risk that more than 7 million people in Syria will embark on the journey to Europe, which will further deepen the current humanitarian crisis. In line with diplomatic efforts, financial assistance is also crucial to eliminating the root causes, and reduce the impact of this crisis.

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