Moment is there for Turkey to get closer to Europe, EU commissioner says

Moment is there for Turkey to get closer to Europe, EU commissioner says

İpek Yezdani - ISTANBUL / ipek.yezdani@hurriyet.com.tr

Turkey hosts more than 3 million Syrian refugees. It is in the interests of Turkey and the EU to sustain cooperation on migration, said Avramopoulos.

The European Union’s migration chief has said he personally believes in Turkey’s road to EU membership, while also praising Ankara’s efforts on migrants fleeing wars.

In an interview with daily Hürriyet, EU Commissioner for Migration, Home Affairs and Citizenship Dimitris Avramopoulos said Turkey and the EU have always been and should remain as partners. “We have a long and shared history. Nevertheless, it is our common future that should determine our relations. A shared future. A future to build together,” he added.

Avramopoulos is scheduled to pay an official visit to Ankara on Oct. 15 to discuss key issues with Turkish officials.

Q: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan suggested he could take Turkey to a referendum over its EU bid. On Oct. 8, he called on the European Union to be sincere about Turkey’s accession process. Do you think the EU is sincere about Turkey’s accession process?

A: I have always believed in Turkey’s European path, and the moment is there for Turkey to move forward with its membership aspirations and come closer to Europe. Turkey and the EU have always been and should remain partners. We have a long and shared history. Nevertheless, it is our common future that should determine our relations. A shared future. A future to build together. This is also why I am in Ankara today, to further work together on that common path for Turkey and the EU. We should all work to build bridges and foster mutual understanding and, most importantly, trust.

Q: Turkey has the capacity to open and close all EU chapters within six months if principled negotiations are carried out, the ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) spokesperson, Ömer Çelik, recently said. Turkey’s accession process to the EU has been frozen for some time now. How do you think the accession talks can start again?

A: Let me clarify that the accession negotiations with Turkey are not suspended. Turkey has repeatedly stated that it is committed to EU membership. As a candidate country, Turkey has an obligation to uphold the same high standards as every member state and to pursue good neighborly relations. I am positive that now is a good timing to pursue the necessary reforms that will bring Turkey closer to the EU. All EU countries have gone through the same pathway before they became members of the EU. I understand that some of these reforms require additional efforts, but in the end only a positive impact will be the result from deepening democracy and modernizing the administration.

Q: Relations between Turkey and the EU have markedly improved in the recent months and US’ trade wars have played a major role in that. What do you think about the state of ongoing economic and political relations between Turkey and the EU?

A: Turkey remains a key strategic partner in the areas of common interest. The global challenges that we face today are common and we need to address them together. We therefore remain committed to intensifying our cooperation in all key areas of shared interest: Migration, terrorism, climate change, trade, economy, etc. The door is open for a stronger partnership. What is needed is shared trust and commitment on all these issues. I see that in the field of my responsibilities: Migration and security - global challenges with a direct impact both on Europe and Turkey. Our cooperation can be a paradigm shift for the whole world.

Q: There would be a huge irregular migration flow to Turkish borders if a large-scale assault by Russian and Syrian air forces were conducted in Idlib. What is the EU’s opinion about the recent Idlib deal between Turkey and Russia?

A: The conflict in Syria has already caused unspeakable sufferings to millions of people forced to live under siege or to leave their country. The EU has repeatedly said that a military offensive in Idlib, which would put at risk the lives of more than three million civilians living in the region and risks resulting in a new humanitarian catastrophe, has to be avoided. It is important that the agreement reached on Idlib between the Russian and Turkish presidents is fully implemented. It should guarantee the protection of civilian lives and infrastructure, enable unhindered and sustainable humanitarian access and provide the basis for the renewal of the political process with a view of an inclusive, credible and sustainable political solution for Syria. Turkey is to be praised for its efforts to stop the escalation of the hostilities in Syria.

Q: In March 2016, the EU and Turkey have signed an agreement aimed at stopping the flow of irregular migration of Syrians and other nationalities via Turkey to Europe. What has changed since this agreement was signed?

A: The EU-Turkey Statement has been a milestone in our cooperation in migration. Since its entering into force in March 2016, irregular arrivals to Europe have dropped drastically, particularly via sea. This means our joint approach works and continues to work, but we must remain vigilant. Recently, we have seen some increases via land. It is in the interests of both sides to sustain this cooperation, so that the migration situation remains stable. We have always recognized and continue to recognize the immense and impressive efforts of Turkey in hosting and addressing the needs of more than 3.5 million refugees from Syria on its territory. This is precisely why the EU has provided for immense financial and operational support to the millions of refugees on the ground in Turkey over the past years and I assure that we will continue to do so.

Q: Part of the agreement was visa liberalization for Turkish citizens at the latest by the end of June 2016. Turkey has done its part in the agreement however the EU has not. Recently Turkish and European Union officials have met in Ankara to discuss a visa-free regime for Turkish nationals. What is the situation right now for visa liberalization for Turkish citizens?

A: I appreciate the positive signals to continue the work on the visa liberalization made by the Turkish authorities. Turkey’s proposal is a step forward on a number of the outstanding benchmarks. Ultimately, Turkey will need to demonstrate that all 72 benchmarks have been met in full. But the commission and I personally are ready to continue to offer support to arrive to that moment. Visa liberalization for the Turkish citizens will be a strong signal of trust and will open one more pathway for Turkey’s European perspective I am hopeful that we can clarify the remaining technical aspects of visa liberalization soon.

Q: Turkey had earlier this year submitted its plans to the European Commission on how to sort the terror laws to meet EU conditions. Do you think Turkey is on the right path in terms of fulfilling the EU requirements?

A: As regards the anti-terrorism benchmark, let me reiterate that the legislative changes proposed are not aimed at weakening Turkey’s capacity to fight against terrorism. We all and I personally show understanding for Turkey’s concerns. Turkey has suffered from terrorism. We are all too familiar with the different faces of terrorism inside our societies as well as from outside. But if there is one thing that we have learnt very clearly, it is that we can only fight this enormous challenge together, united. Another important tool in the cooperation between the EU and Turkey on security will be the agreement with Europol, which I proposed to the Turkish authorities. We are keen to start the negotiations on the Europol agreement soon. This will enable Turkey to cooperate with EU member states on operational investigations and not only. We have to trust each other and exchange information.

Q: Another important part of the agreement between the EU and Turkey was about the allocation of 6 billion euros in total by the EU for the use of Syrian immigrants in Turkey. However, the Turkish government hasn’t received the second part of this payment yet. When do you think this payment will be made to Turkey?

A: We have indeed so far mobilized the first 3 billion euros and after this summer’s agreement by the EU member states, another 3 billion euros are going to be mobilized to ensure a seamless continuation of the facility. This means that continued implementation of successful existing projects and the development of new ones can now proceed. The facility has proven one of the swiftest and most effective EU support mechanisms, ensuring that the needs of refugees and host communities in Turkey are addressed in a comprehensive and coordinated manner. For example, more than 500,000 Syrian children got access to education and 1.3 million refugees receive monthly cash transfers via the Facility for Refugees in Turkey. Turkey has to be commended for hosting this big community of Syrian refugees and to be continuously supported.

Q: There has been a lot of criticism from the EU regarding the state of human rights, press freedom and freedom of expression in Turkey. What is your opinion?

A: All across the world, citizens count on sustained stability and prosperity, based on the rights, freedom and rules of their democratic societies. I am sure that Turkey will continue its European path and come closer to Europe, not only geopolitically, but in terms of its fundamental principles. Stability, prosperity, the rule of law, freedom and the cornerstones of our modern democracies are achieved through alliances and collaboration, through working together across borders, across nations. And the European Union is the most reliable and sincere partner and ally to achieve all these goals.

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