Turkey traditionally criticized for being too poor, too big and too Muslim - Ankara’s ex-EU minister
Turkey’s patience is being put to the test with EU membership talks stalled and NATO’s pressure to drop its arms deal with Russia. Will Ankara stick to its guns? I ask Egemen Bagis, Turkey’s former minister for EU affairs.
Sophie Shevardnadze: Egemen Bagis, Turkey's former minister for EU affairs, welcome to the show. It is great to have you with us today. Lots to talk about. Now, you were Turkish chief negotiator in accession talks with the EU and back in 2017 President Erdogan openly declared that Turkey doesn't need the EU. Now Ankara is pushing for Brussels to finally decide whether they want Turkey in the union or not. If Turkey doesn't need the EU why not just quit the talks and be done with it?
Egemen Bagis: I've always argued that the EU is Turkey's dietitian. We all know that we have to watch what we eat and we need to exercise regularly to lead a healthy life, but sometimes we need the prescription of a dietitian who tells us how much to eat for breakfast, what we eat for lunch, what to eat for dinner and how much exercise to make throughout the day. So the EU process itself has been fairly good for Turkey. It has helped us increase the standards of our democracy, increase the standards of our baby food, increase the standards of our roads and highways, increase the standards of our telecommunication, increase the standards of our human rights. So the EU process has been good for Turkey, but the EU attitude towards Turkey has not been as good. Turkey probably can apply to be in the “Guinness Book of Records” because no other country has waited for such a long time to join any international organisation in history. We have been trying to become a member since 1958 and it has come to a point where both the Turkish public opinion and the European public opinion is sick and tired of this question. So Turkey can do with or without Europe. But Europe also has to decide if they can do without Turkey. And I think the time to answer that question is coming up.
SS: So Turkey's current foreign minister Mr. Cavusoglu says that some member states are deliberately obstructing Turkey's accession to the EU. Do you have any idea who specifically he means? Who is he referring to? And why are these member states doing this?
EB: Well, some of the states, some of the founding members of European Union naturally worry about Turkey coming in, because when Turkey joins the EU because of our population we would be either the largest or the second largest country with population which means we will have an important say in the Commission, in the Parliament, in the budget making process, and they would not want to give up their leadership position to Turkey and they will try to postpone Turkey's membership as much as possible. But to be honest, for me the ideal issue is not the end result. The process itself is more important than the result. So it might come to a point where Turkey would change her mind and not become a member. But we're not there yet. Or European Union could change their mind and decide that Turkey is not fit for membership.
SS: I know that you blamed European lawmakers, like the Dutch MEP Kati Piri, for being anti-Islam and anti-immigration when they actually froze talks with Turkey. However the MEPs criticised the Turkish government for being too harsh on dissidents and a lot of those critics are actually pro-Muslim. Can this be the reason for Turkey's failed accession, or one of the reasons?
EB: Well, historically Turkey's opponents used to claim that there are three issues vis-a-vis Turkey - that Turkey is too poor, Turkey is too big and Turkey is too Muslim. The fact that we are too poor is no longer correct because our per capita purchase parity is higher than some of the current EU member countries. The fact that we are too big is actually an advantage for Europe because Europe needs new markets, because the European population is getting old. The average age in Germany is 49, but the average age in Turkey is 27. So this young dynamic consumer base is very important for EU companies to reach out to. And the third issue that Turkey is too Muslim is actually a great benefit for Europe if they can only take advantage of it, because Turkey and EU would be the best answer to the fears of clash of civilisations. If you remember, Turkey and Spain had established the Alliance of Civilisations which is today led by the former foreign minister of Spain Mr. Miguel Moratinos. And that organisation was a response to the biggest fear that we all had that what if the different civilisations were to clash and we would end up with another world war. So Turkey can send the message to 1.5 billion Muslims around the world that culture of democracy and culture of Islam can coexist in a very harmonious way.
SS: Manfred Weber who is the leading candidate for European Commission president says that once he assumes the presidency he will drop the accession talks with Turkey completely. What will Turkey's answer be to that?
EB: Well, actually he's not telling the truth because even if he is elected, even if he is the leader he will not have such an authority. The EU process, the EU negotiation process, the accession talks could only start with a unanimous vote of all member countries and it can only be stopped with a unanimous vote of all member countries. So if Mr. Weber can control the will and the say of all 28 member countries of European Union, only then he can. But I don't think anyone in Europe will have such a great authority of all the countries. So he's exploiting the Turkey issue for the upcoming elections which is not fair because he's not being honest to his constituencies.
SS: So after the opposition candidate was elected to be mayor of Istanbul in March President Erdogan called for a rerun of the election. Of course, European Parliament's top politician Guy Verhofstadt said that this was another move towards dictatorship saying that under President Erdogan Turkey's accession to the EU is “impossible”. Do you think that the criticism is justified?
EB: It is not at all justified because President Erdogan was not the one who called for the re-election. Many parties including Erdogan's party the Justice and Development Party but also our alliance the Nationalist Party and other political institutions have applied because there were so many evidence of corruption, of mishandling and miscalculating the election results. And the National Election Board of the country which is a board made up of independent judges and prosecutors, they discussed the issue and with a vote of 7 to 4 they decided to renew the elections. Mr. Guy Verhofstadt, when he was prime minister of Belgium, was a very strong supporter of Turkey's accession to EU. As the leader of the liberal group, he had also been very much in favor. But now that he sees there is an anti-Muslim, anti-Turkish, anti-immigrant and anti-refugee, anti-other movement in Europe, and they have an upcoming European Parliament election, he is also trying to exploit the Turkey question for the elections that he is facing which is not fair. If you look at Mr. Verhofstadt’s past statements you will see that what he said in the past was total the opposite of what he is saying today.
SS: So Turkey has done a great job in stemming the tide of refugees to Europe. Can faltering ties with the EU lead to the collapse of the refugee deal and bring the crisis back on the agenda?
EB: We have been working very closely with the European Commission, especially Commissioner Avramopoulos who is in charge of the portfolio, to make sure we find solutions that save lives. Currently Turkey is hosting almost 4 million Syrian refugees in Turkey and we have worked very hard with all of our neighbors and all of our European partners to minimize the number of refugees that go from Turkey to Europe illegally. And we are trying to make sure that those who do go to Europe go through the legal channels with the right documentation, with the right process and procedures. But Europe has made some promises to Turkey. They promised to pay Turkey 6 billion euros and they haven't paid most of it, majority of it has not even reached Turkey. And they also had promised that they would lift all visa requirements for Turkish citizens to visit European Union member countries, the Schengen countries. And that also has not happened yet. So there are so many unkept promises and we are working diligently to make sure both sides keep their promises. But what's more important, what's at stake here is lives of millions of people. We will not accept sending these Syrians to harm's way because they're human beings. We would have preferred that European Union should take the leading role in making sure there is lasting democracy and stability in Syria so that these people can go back to their homelands, to their villages, to their country and rebuild their country, rebuild Syria as a democratic country.
SS: So are Europeans only feeding Turkey promises about membership because they're afraid of the failure of the refugee agreement. Could that be?
EB: Well, that's one of two reasons. That's one of the current reasons. But as I said, Turkey's accession challenge has started in 1958 and they would always find another excuse to delay and postpone Turkey's membership. And now this refugee crisis is one of the reasons that they are very much concerned. As you can see, some of the member states don't even want to take 1000 refugees and we are hosting 4 million of them, only from Syria. We also have refugees from Iraq from other countries in the region and Turkey is known to be a hospitable country to open their arms to those people who are in need. And this is in our genes. We have done this for centuries and I can assure you we will continue helping those who are in need.
SS: So Turkey is no longer part of the American preferential trade program which eliminated its duties on thousands of Turkish products. Washington says Turkey is developed enough economically and, therefore, is no longer eligible for the aid. Is this a sign of a wider rift between the two countries?
EB: Well, the relations between Turkey and United States have been going through some ups and downs recently. President Trump lately announced that he is reducing the tariff on Turkish steel from 50 percent down to 25 percent and he has made some other convenient decisions to help increase our trade which we appreciate. However, there are some decisions on the part of the U.S. lawmakers and government and the executive branch which I cannot really understand, the mentality of. I guess, President Trump is planning a visit to Turkey in July where all these issues will be discussed face to face between the two leaders with President Erdogan and President Trump. And we will be able to finalise these differences of opinion. Turkey and U.S. have been allies since the Korean War and we have had very important cooperation on numerous global issues. We're hoping that the United States will help Turkey in her fight against terrorism, against PKK, against Daesh, al-Qaida and all other remaining terrorist organisations, such as YPG and PYD. And we're hoping that Turkey can serve as a bridge between East and West, between United States, Russia, China and other members of United Nations to find solutions to the ongoing problems in Yemen, in Iraq, in Syria, in Kashmir, in Cyprus. And we would like to find solutions, not problems.
SS: So the Americans also argue that the TurkStream pipeline which will carry Russian gas through Turkey to the EU is threatening European energy security while Turkey is increasingly falling into dependence from Moscow. Is the cancellation of a preferential trade status connected to Turkish cooperation with Russia on this pipeline?
EB: I hope not. I don't know. That is a question you have to ask the American decision-makers. But Turkey's cooperation with Russia is not a threat to Europe. Turkey's cooperation with Russia which would provide Russian gas to Europe is an advantage, is a promise to Europe to find solutions. When Russia and Ukraine had their differences and European countries could not access Russian gas because of the problems with Ukraine they were the ones who felt the need for other alternative ways and means of reaching that gas. And Turkey through the Turkish Stream pipeline will be able to provide an alternative way of providing energy resources to the European countries which they require. If you look at the map, at least 70 percent of all the natural resources that Europe needs are either to the south or north or east of Turkey. So unless someone invents a new wireless technology to transfer energy resources Europe needs Turkey's cooperation to access those energy resources, so it is time for Europe to realise that their cooperation with Turkey is in their benefit.
SS: There are also calls in Congress to block the purchase of F-35 jets for Turkey if it proceeds with purchasing Russia S-400 missile defense systems. You've been saying that American threats make no sense as Turkey has contributed to the F-35 project and, therefore, has the full right to get them. So if Turkey indeed is in the right it means that the jets will be delivered no matter what and Washington's threats are what - empty?
EB: Comparing the F-35 project to the S-400 is mixing apples and oranges. F-35 is a project that Turkey joined 20 years ago and have spent billions of dollars in the making of it with her engineers, soldiers, strategic thinkers, capabilities and manufacturing sites and equipment. And we have already received four of these F-35 planes which are being trained by our military air force personnel in the United States and they will soon be coming to Turkey. But then we will have to invest another 7 billion dollars for some of the spare parts project of F-35. So taking Turkey out of the F-35 project would also hurt the project itself and would also hurt the interest of other partner countries including the United States. S-400 is an air defense system, it’s not an offense system. It's going to help Turkey protect her airspace from international intrusions, from international attacks. So comparing the two projects is not really sensible.
SS: But United States is suggesting that Turkey buys their Patriot systems instead of Russia's S-400s, and Ankara says that the deal with Russia is done but entered the talks with the U.S. nevertheless. How is Turkey planning to maneuver here?I mean, does it want to sort of have its cake and eat it too?
EB: I think there is something wrong in the question. We did not want to buy the Patriot instead of the S-400s. We want to purchase the Patriot in addition to the S-400 so we could use two different air defense systems to make sure Turkey is protected against all threats from all angles and we are ready to talk about it. That's why we would like to establish a committee where our Russian and American partners are also there and we find solutions because we believe, as we have done for centuries, Turkey is the most eastern part of the West and the most western part of the East. We serve as a bridge and we can also help that geographical advantage to bring peace and stability to the rest of the world, and we can bring our partners together so that they can find solutions to the ongoing challenges.
SS: OK, but NATO is the most Western organisation that you can get. So do you think that this whole bickering over S-400s can eventually put Turkey's position within NATO in jeopardy?
EB: Well, I hope it wouldn't, but if it comes to that Turkey will have to decide what is best for her interests. As you know, we went through a coup attempt back in July 2016 where our own parliament was bombed eleven times, and the planes that bombed our parliament did not belong to any hostile country or any enemy, they belonged to us. They were purchased with our tax money and they were being utilised by terrorists who had dressed in military uniforms of the Turkish air force. So they were controlled by some outside forces and they had become clowns of these outside forces. So we want to make sure that Turkey's security, Turkey's national interest and the pursuit of happiness of Turkish citizens are protected, and we will do whatever it takes and we will work with whoever it takes to ensure Turkish citizens sleep better at night.
SS: I want to talk about Syria a little bit because in Syria Turkey is at odds with its NATO allies who are supporting the YPG which Turkey is actually fighting against in Syria. Do you think this can set NATO allies on a collision course?
EB: Well, I hope it won't because Turkey has legitimate reasons to be against YPG. YPG is an extension of PKK. PKK is on the list of terrorist organizations of all the major countries in the world including NATO, including EU, including U.S. and, therefore, they should not be cooperating with an extension of their self-declared terrorist organisation...
SS: We know all of that. We know the history behind. But you know that none of that really matters if America wants to back someone. I mean, none of that explanation really matters. So the facts are they’re cooperating with those who you are fighting.
EB: Well, then we will also do whatever it takes to protect our borders. That's why we're working with all of the partners in the region, including Russia and Iran, and we're going to these Astana talks and we're inviting our American and NATO colleagues as well to find solutions. But we will not accept any terrorist elements to be at the borders of Turkey. That's why we are determined to establish safety zones in her neighborhood in Turkey's borders and we want the territorial integrity of Syria to remain intact. We are very much against division of Syria. We are very much against creation of new failed states in the Middle East. And we will do our best to keep the stability and keep the lives safe.
SS: So the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says that the Turkish army has been covertly building a concrete wall around the Syrian Kurdish city of Afrin which it's been controlling since last year along with the Free Syrian Army. The rebels argue that there is no wall but only fortifications that would prevent attacks from the Kurdish YPG. Why then we hear locals arguing that they're being prevented from returning to their homes in Afrin?
EB: Well, you have to ask that question to them. As far as I know, we have done an important cleansing operation around Afrin and the terrorist attacks that were targeting Turkish lives from that part of Syria are no longer a threat because there are no more YPG elements that are sending missiles to Turkish lands since our operation. So as far as we are concerned, we achieved a very successful result and we put an end to the attacks coming from that part of Syria.
SS: Thank you so much for this insightful interview. It's been very interesting talking to you. We were talking to Egemen Bagis, Turkey's former minister for EU Affairs, discussing Turkey's ties with the EU and United States and whether they were facing yet another crisis.