Turkish envoy: The EU should not tell us to open our borders when it is closing its own

Yenel Selim [Georgi Gotev]

EXCLUSIVE / The refugee crisis can only be solved if the international community finds a solution to the Syrian crisis, which has become an international civil war, said Turkish Ambassador Selim Yenel, in an interview with EURACTIV.

Selim Yenel is a career diplomat currently serving as Turkey’s Ambassador to the EU. He has served in Afghanistan, at the United Nations in New York, as Ambassador to Austria, and as Deputy Undersecretary for European Affairs.

Yenel spoke to EURACTIV’s Editor-in-Chief, Daniela Vincenti.

The EU-Turkey joint action plan has just been activated, and the EU approved a €3 billion fund for Turkey to help refugees and migrants, in exchange for Ankara stopping the flow towards Europe.  Is that enough to deal with the crisis, at a time when tens of thousands are fleeing a Russian-Syrian assault on rebel-held areas around Aleppo?

Money won’t solve it. That’s the first thing. A solution to the Syrian civil war is the only way to solve what has become an international civil war.

You’re right, more than 70,000 people are on the march because of what is happening in Aleppo. The money that the EU has promised us is going to be used for the Syrians, to give them a better life. We have already spent €9 billion just on camps.

This new money will allow us to provide healthcare, education, and upgrade the camps. The money hasn’t arrived yet, but we are still spending. Hopefully, the money will help alleviate the burden of dealing with the Syrians. But it won’t solve the crisis.

Turkey has vowed to help the fleeing refugees, but has not opened its borders. Aid agencies have warned that they are facing a “desperate” situation as they wait for help. Mogherini pleaded to let these refugees in. What will it take? President Recep Tayyip Erdo?an is meeting German Chancellor Angela Merkel today [8 February]. Is he going to ask for something in return?

We have had the borders open for five years. In the last few months, things have gotten so out of hand that we had to control the borders more and we had to introduce a visa policy for Syrians. In terms of the people escaping from Aleppo, they are near our border, where they are more or less safe. We have to check who they are though.

We’ve had incidents with Daesh and other extremists, so we have to be careful and check who we are taking in. I don’t think the EU is in a position to tell us to open our borders when it is rapidly closing its own.

I find that rather ironic. In the end, we have been helping these people and we will continue to do so. It has nothing to do with Merkel’s visit.

The EU is in a panic. We helped the Syrians. Now we are helping the EU

What would you consider to be a successful outcome of Merkel’s visit?

The EU’s biggest concern, I think, is numbers. Member states want the numbers to go down. The EU wants to show the public that the Turkey deal will reduce the number of refugees. And the deal is working, after we have introduced a number of measures.

For example, we are introducing visas for Syrians, changing our labour legislation to allow Syrians to find work, introducing more security measures, and (engaging in) more cooperation with Bulgaria and Greece.

But these things take time. We cannot turn these things on and off like a faucet. We want the numbers to go down, and they will, given time. I believe that Merkel wants the numbers to go down and stay down.

We understand that the EU needs our help, because it is in a dire situation. They are in a panic, they need our help. We helped the Syrians and now we are going to help the EU.

Projects will be approved soon

The Commission is ready to disburse the money for specific projects. Are these projects ready?

Specialists from both sides, and the EU, have gone through a needs assessment, on what people require. We have a number of projects, which will be approved soon. We hope once that happens the money will start flowing. We have done our best to work closely with the Commission. In the coming weeks and months, we’ll see more and more of these projects starting up.

Much of the money is meant to help improve refugees’ access to education and healthcare, but also access to the labour market. Is there enough work for all these refugees considering the high unemployment in Turkey?

Indeed, we have passed legislation that allows them to work legally, as, before, they could not. For example, we have 700,000 children that need education. We only have capacity for 250,000, but we hope to expand this to 450,000.

However, we need at least 25,000 teachers. These education providers will come from the Syrians, as they are now allowed to work here legally. This is just one example in which the labour market will open to the Syrians, not Turks.

They will be able to work and educate their children themselves, in their own way. Additionally, other companies and establishments will be able to hire Syrians. We feel that despite the fact we have high unemployment, there are opportunities for Syrians.

So, mainly unskilled labour?

Both unskilled and skilled.

Back to the projects, can you give me some concrete details about some of them?

There are two projects which come to mind. One is to upgrade all of the temporary tent camps that we have, as well as the more-permanent container camps, which are much better.

For a long time, the UN’s World Food Programme helped us feed the refugees, but they ran out of money.

With the EU’s money, we hope to give every Syrian a card with which they can buy food. They are the main ones which come to mind, but NGOs will have many projects too.

One of the criteria for the disbursement of money is that it goes straight to the Syrians, not via Turkey’s hands …

Well there is the guarantee that the money will go through the Commission services, which will monitor where the money is spent. It’s a joint monitoring and the money will not go into our coffers. The money will go straight into these projects, it won’t go into our budget.

One of the pointa in the plan calls on Turkey to pursue a tighter border control to stem the influx of refugees. Are you preparing for that? How?

We have improved our cooperation with Greece and its coastguard. We have been buying more vessels in order to better protect the borders. The main purpose of any coastguard is not to prevent people entering, it’s to protect people. That is not what they have been doing, not what they have been expected to do lately.

Firstly, we have to control the sea border better with the vessels. On the land side, we have to prevent people from setting sail in their little boats. To this end, we have been arresting more and more traffickers, but they always find new ways and methods to move people.

We have to be craftier than them and that’s why this improved cooperation with Bulgaria and Greece, as well as Frontex, is so important.

Again, it takes time though. Initially, traffickers were using smaller boats to ferry people to one large transport vessel. This we were able to stop, but they always change pattern and try something new. The most important thing is to stop the smugglers,and learn their tricks.

Share intelligence?

It is happening, but only slowly. We know who is leaving, and the Greeks know who is filtering through. We know what we have prevented, and they know what we haven’t managed to prevent.

Let me turn to the impact of this crisis to EU-Turkey relations. After a long period of silence and apathy, do you think EU-Turkey relations have entered a new phase?

Yes, because of the migration crisis. It has turned into an opportunity though. The fact that we had this crisis, as well as Russia becoming a threat, has brought us back together. We’ve used it to reenergise our relationship.

During the summit in November, people said that the EU had made concessions to Turkey, but the truth is, we were already moving forward. First of all, the visa was going to happen in 2017. It’s just been moved up to 2016.

Secondly, the opening of new accession chapters was dependent on Cyprus anyway. The third aspect is the issue of summits, which they decided to manage.

The refugee crisis showed the EU and Turkey need each other

When it comes down to it, we are just talking about a normalisation of our relationship. We are becoming a normal candidate again. We were just muddling through, but now this crisis has made both parties realise that we need each other.

We have a better dialogue now, such as the energy dialogue in which Commissioner Cañete went to Turkey and the political dialogue in Ankara. In April, five Commissioners will go to Ankara for the economic dialogue. This shows the increased interest coming from both sides.

October 2016 was mentioned as possible date for visa liberalisation. But giving visa liberalisation to Turkey will probably not be a popular issue with public opinion in Europe. The devil is in the details. How are you going to make sure you deal with sensitivities, restore mutual trust and accelerate things?

Firstly, we have the visa roadmap that we have to implement. Primary concern is the readmission agreement. We have decided to move up the implementation agreement for third parties by one year.

Now we are going to make it functional in June of this year. From June to September, we will fulfill a number of other conditions, after which the Commission will produce a report on if we have done enough or not. That will be a crucial time for us. If the Commission is pleased, then it will give a recommendation to the member states that we get visa liberalisation.

The stakes are high.

The stakes are high, but we know what we have to do. We have passed legislation and updated our passports to fulfill these criteria.

What do you think is the most difficult roadblock?

We have this data protection law, which is quite crucial, relating to a number of things, including cooperation with Europol. It’s in the pipeline and will be considered by parliament soon. If we can push it through in a way that satisfies the EU, then that will be a major success for us.

There is also the issue of making progress on the political problems that have hampered the negotiations up until now, especially the Cyprus problem, which stands out as a fundamental prerequisite for the establishment of a new equilibrium in this direction. Are we seeing the light out of tunnel on the Cyprus issue?

It is key. We need to solve it. We can resolve this issue, on which we are working on well with our Greek-Cypriot and Turkish-Cypriot colleagues. There are still difficulties, still challenges, but there is will on both sides. We hope it will happen. If it does, the Turkey-EU relationship will flourish, because we will be able to open more chapters. If it doesn’t, then the framework we have made will be put under strain. We might have the visa, but not much else.

What’s the solution?

The solution is the Cyprus issue. Both sides have discussed it for so many years, so they know where they need to do work.

There are so many issues that need to be resolved, but now they have the will. We expect a solution in the first half of the year. Both leaders want it, Greece wants it, Turkey needs it, the EU needs a success story. The UN, of course, needs it.

After all these years of back and forth, we must know now where the middle ground is though …

And they are finding it. I’m very hopeful rather bullish about this in fact, I’ve seen the negotiation texts and it is going well. I’m sure in the end they will have a package. It is doable.

By June?

First half of the year. We hope.

Where do you see Turkey in a geo-political context?

We have said a lot of the things in the past about a safe zone, how to handle the crisis, but no one listened to us. Now the idea is popping up again. But now it is more difficult to implement because of Russian involvement.

Moscow is using a pretext to be more aggressive in Syria

Our relationship with Moscow has definitely soured, given the plane’s downing and its aftermath. We have tried to defuse the tension, but the Russians aren’t interested. They don’t want to talk about or resolve the issue. They are just making it worse.

They seem to be using it as a pretext to be more involved and aggressive in Syria. They are not bombing Daesh, they are just bombing the opposition. They want to push the West into making a choice between the current regime or Daesh. This civil war has become international in nature.

Does the revitalisation of Turkish-US relations, together with the recent rapprochement with the EU, provide renewed hope for addressing the fight against terrorism and Daesh? Is there hope for a diplomatic solution?

Everybody is looking for a diplomatic solution, but that is only going to happen if everyone agrees on what is happening on the ground. Right now, there is still activity, bombings, and killing. The ground is not fertile enough for a diplomatic process and no one can agree on who is the opposition.

Washington and Ankara, for example, differ on the role of the (Syrian Kurdish) PYD (Democratic Union Party), so our policies differ too. There is no agreement on opposition leaders among our allies. Unless the situation on the ground changes, there will be no solution.

Only the Russians and Iranians are willing to put troops on the ground. They will have to exhaust themselves first. Right now, the Russians and the regime have the upper hand. Aleppo will fall and then a million more people may be displaced. What are we going to do then? We’ve been warning about this for years.

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