New road map will give fresh momentum to EU–Turkey ties
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s recent visit to Brussels was positive because both Turkey and the EU decided to maintain dialogue, said retired ambassador Ünal Çeviköz.
The road map endorsed by the two sides could give a new momentum to Ankara’s rocky relations with Brussels, as the Turkish government may find it easier to fulfil the EU’s expectations on democratic standards in the near future in the absence of an election in the coming months, Çeviköz told the Hürriyet Daily News in an interview.
How do you read the outcome of Erdoğan’s visit to Brussels?
The most important aspect of the visit to Brussels was the trilateral meeting between Erdoğan, European Council President Donald Tusk and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker. Erdoğan’s meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel was also a highlight.
Turkey-EU relations have not been going well for a long time and it was time to review the situation. I understand that they agreed to draw up a road map for another year. This is encouraging. If it is a visionary and constructive road map it could help to give new momentum to Turkey-EU relations. That is exactly what we need. Visa-free travel in Europe for Turkish citizens, the Syrian refugee issue, and the EU’s financial support on the refugee issue were probably the key elements of the road map.
Still, I don’t think there will be any rapid developments because the EU has made it clear since 2013 that there were 72 criteria for the finalization of the agreement granting Turkish citizens’ visa-free travel to Europe. The problem is the law on combatting terrorism, and the Turkish government is still not at the point of coming to terms with the EU’s understanding of the issue. EU leaders have made it clear that as long as we cannot make the necessary adaptation to the EU regulations, it will remain a block in front of visa-free travel to the EU. So unless there is a new development I don’t think visa-free travel will be a near prospect.
What do you expect to happen in Ankara-Brussels relations in the year ahead?
I expect that Turkey will look for a very gradual and very lukewarm softening of some restrictions. Then probably the EU will look at the continuation of accession talks more favorably, after which the opening of accession chapters 23 and 24, related to the rule of law and fundamental rights, will become very crucial. If the EU can convince Cyprus, which currently blocks these chapters, that could lead to big momentum for Turkey and the EU.
Some would argue that Turkey–EU ties will be limited to transactional relations, cooperating on issues of common interest but disregarding human rights problems.
The Brussels visit was very important, firstly because both sides agreed to maintain dialogue. In the past we interrupted the dialogue and we saw the adverse effects of that. Second, Tusk underlined that he raised the issue of abiding by the universal values of human rights. This shows that the EU is not just going to look at relations with Turkey on a transactional basis; it will insist on the importance of fundamental human rights like freedom of expression and freedom of the press.
All this will be on their agenda and this is exactly how Europeans look at relations with Turkey. They want to see Turkey reach the same standards that Europeans are enjoying. They may come to the point where they look to open chapters 23 and 24.
So we should not expect progress on relations without Turkey taking necessary steps on improving democratic standards?
That is my reading. I think the state of emergency is a very important stumbling block in terms of democratization and I think the EU leaders have indirectly said its continuation is a problem. As long as it remains in place it will be an obstacle.
Looking at the president’s track record, which so far has proved rather deaf to criticism on democratic issues, do you see any prospect of a change in his outlook?
If we had some kind of election coming up I wouldn’t expect this to happen. Most of the difficulties we are facing are related to election calendars. The next election is scheduled for 2019, which means the government will not be under the pressure of election preparation, so it will perhaps be able to soften certain implementations. If this happens it may provide a new momentum.
But there are question marks about Erdoğan’s intentions and whether he is still interested in the membership process. The first thing he mentioned after the referendum was the reintroduction of death penalty.
The references to capital punishment were political maneuvering. I have not seen Erdoğan or any other government leader taking the initiative to reintroduce capital punishment to the criminal code. I don’t think there is a serious consideration of reinstating capital punishment. It is against the universal values that the EU defends. If there is some kind of consideration to bring it back, it would be entirely against Turkey’s path toward EU membership. Brussels has made it clear that it is a red line, and if it is reinstated relations will break. If that happens Turkey will find itself in a different league. Its Western vocation will come to an end it will be very difficult to reenergize that kind of a path. I think the Turkish leadership is aware of this difficulty.
But some doubt whether the president values the importance of the EU and wishes Turkey to remain anchored to the EU.
That is a very serious doubt and similar concerns are present in the Turkish public opinion as well. I think we have come to this point for political reasons. It has become an instrument for domestic purposes and the reason why we have been discussing it for the last few years is because we have been on a permanent cycle of elections, one after another.
Now the country’s leadership will have a final consideration on where Turkey’s main interests lie. The leadership will come to terms with the overall tendencies Ankara has pursued since World War II. I think Erdoğan is very aware that Turkey’s future lies in maintaining relations with the EU. The country’s economic relations oblige Turkey to follow that path. The EU remains our most important economic partner.
Some say Turkey may opt for transactional relations, telling Europeans to get on with business as usual while keeping democratic issues out of sight.
That is something EU public opinion will find difficult to accept.
Erdoğan also recently attended the NATO summit. Some observers say there is a widening gap between Turkey and its allies on regional issues.
On a case-by-case approach we can see there is a difference of opinion as far as Syria is concerned. Erdoğan has admitted that it is understood the Americans will conduct the Raqqa operation with the help of the Syrian Kurdish YPG, but that in the case of Turkey’s national interests the rules of engagement will apply. But in NATO’s overall mission on global issues Turkey is not in a very different position compared to other allies.
Let’s get back to the meeting with Merkel.
We probably do not understand the real essence for the German insistence on the visit of their MPs to the İncirlik air base. The approach of Germany is legitimate, stemming from the requirement of the German Parliament. The parliament has the prerogative to monitor the movements of the country’s soldiers and military experts.
We in Turkey are not looking at it from a legalistic point of view and we fail to understand how important it is as far as the German constitution is concerned. We look at it from the political point of view, which is why we are not on the same page as Germany on this issue. Turkey has to make the distinction between its commitments to a military political organization as a member of NATO and bilateral relations with individual members of NATO.
Turkey accuses Germany of providing a safe haven for the [outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party] PKK and members of the Gülen movement. It seems that Turkey is trying to use leverage over Germany by blocking the visit to the İncirlik air base.
Turkey’s complaints are also legitimate. Turkey has every right to complain that it has a perception that Germany is supporting PKK activities. This has to be dealt with on a bilateral front. But this problem should not be reflected in a multilateral organization. That is the mistake Turkey is making. I find Ankara’s reaction in terms of İncirlik disproportionate.
Who is Ünal Çeviköz?
Çeviköz served as Turkey’s Ambassador to Azerbaijan (2001-2004) and to Iraq (2004-2006). From 2007 to 2010 he was Deputy Undersecretary at the Foreign Ministry. In 2009, he prepared the protocols for potential bilateral normalization signed between Turkey and Armenia. In 2010, he was appointed as Turkey’s ambassador to London. He retired from government service in September 2014 and he was elected as the President of 28th General Assembly of IMO (2013-2015).
Currently he is president of Ankara Policy Centre, a member of several think-tanks and a columnist in Hürriyet and the Hürriyet Daily News.