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‘Turkey’s human rights record is better than some in the EU’

Video: Mark Zammit Cordina

There is no end in sight for Turkey’s EU membership negotiations but EU Affairs Minister and chief negotiator Egemen Bagis tells Kurt Sansone his country has not been treated objectively and that it has come a long way on human rights.

The EU agreed to start membership negotiations with Turkey in 2004. Croatia, which applied after your country, will be joining the bloc next year. Do you feel Turkey has been left out in the cold?

I am trying to join the EU not a union of Christians

Turkey has not been treated objectively but I would not qualify the status quo as ‘being left out in the cold’. So far we have opened 13 of the 33 chapters (of the EU acquis, the body of laws every prospective member state has to adopt before accession). From the remaining chapters, 17 are politically blocked.

However, if there were no political blocks we could easily become a member within two or three years because we have already completed 60 per cent of the integration process.

In a country where people were afraid to admit their ethnic identity such as the Kurds, we now have Kurdish broadcasting on state television and Kurdish departments at our universities.

The Turkish president has visited the Alawite community’s place of worship and information about the Alawite interpretation of Islam is in school text books.

The Greek Orthodox community has held Masses at the historical St Simeon church for the first time in 88 years and the Armenian community started using the historical church of Aktaman after a gap of 112 years.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan is the first (Turkish) prime minister to visit the chief Rabbi at his office. These are important reforms.

Turkey’s human rights record is a source of concern. In its annual assessment last year Amnesty International reported some progress but insisted criminal prosecutions violating the right to freedom of expression continued as did torture. Turkey was also reported to have rejected greater recognition for minority rights. This is surely a major stumbling block for your country’s EU bid.

I am not claiming Turkey’s human rights record is perfect or that it is exemplary. But I am claiming, with a very strong level of self-confidence, that Turkey’s human rights record is better than some EU member states.

Today’s Turkey is much better than yesterday’s and I am sure that tomorrow’s Turkey will be better. We are on the right track. But there is hypocrisy in the EU. In the negotiation process, human rights, judicial reform, justice issues and minority rights are covered within chapters 23 and 24.

Last autumn, when Montenegro was given a date to start accession negotiations, the EU council decided that any country starting negotiations has to open chapters 23 and 24 before any other chapter. But in Turkey’s case we cannot open chapters 23 and 24 because Cyprus has blocked them.

So you would like Turkey and the EU to start negotiations on human rights issues?

Why not? I will do anything that can help my country get better.

There are European politicians concerned about Turkey’s accession. A Maltese government MP has just argued against your country’s membership because Turkey “is not culturally European”. How do you react to such a statement?

It is childish and foolish. I am trying to join the EU not a union of Christians. If this gentleman thinks Malta is a member of a Christian club he is wrong. There are tens of millions of Muslims living in EU member states, including Malta, like there are Jews, Buddhists and atheists. I attended Friday prayers at the Mosque and there were many Muslim citizens of Malta.

When he claims that Turkey is not culturally European he should check his text books. Maybe he was skiving from the classroom the day they were teaching the word Europe was the name of a princess who lived in today’s Turkey.

But if he is so concerned about Christian values, he should not forget that Christianity was born in Jerusalem and Bethlehem, which are in the Middle East not Europe.

The EU is not an economic union and neither a political union but the grandest peace project in the history of mankind. Yet, it is still a continental peace project and the day Turkey joins it will become a global peace project because Turkey’s influence can be felt in the Middle East, central Asia, throughout the Caucuses and even China and India are closely following our EU accession bid.

Turkey has generally withstood the global economic turmoil quite well. With the economic problems afflicting many EU states, do you really want to join this project?

We want to catch up with EU standards. The process is much more important today than the end result. The process helps Turkey become more democratic, transparent, and prosperous. By the time the process is over I might not be in a decision-making position but neither will people who are for or against Turkey’s membership.

With its vibrant economy, which has been growing at six times more than the EU average, its young population and access to 70 per cent of the world’s energy resources as a result of its strategic location, Turkey will help Europe solve its challenges.

The Cyprus problem will remain a stumbling block for Turkey’s accession. Will it ever be resolved?

Resolving the Cyprus problem was not a prerequisite to Cyprus joining the EU. Why should it be a prerequisite to Turkey’s membership?

I would like to see the Cyprus problem resolved. We supported the UN-sponsored Annan Plan for reunification, which the Turkish Cypriots also voted for. We were ready to withdraw all our troops. But it was the Greek Cypriots who rejected the plan in 2004.

You were reported to have told Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi that Turkey was prepared to discuss the Cyprus issue in Malta if the Greeks and the Cypriots were convinced to join the discussion table. Is this correct?

I told your Prime Minister there were five players in the issue: Turkish Cypriots, Greek Cypriots, Turkey, Greece and the UK. Malta would be a great location for all five to get together.

The Prime Minister can invite us to Malta and I will promise to deliver Turkey and Turkish Cypriots if he (Dr Gonzi) can ensure Greece and the Greek Cypriots come to the table. The UK will accept.

He can lock us all into a room and like the election of the Pope we will not leave until the problem is solved.

I assured your Prime Minister we will solve the Cyprus problem and he will be getting the Nobel Peace prize.

How real is this?

The Greek Cypriots will not want to come into that room. They do not want to solve the problem. They are not ready to compromise. The Annan Plan failed because it lacked the carrot and the stick. Everybody going into that room has to know what the rewards or punishments are if a solution is reached and if it is not reached.

Do you see Malta as a key ally in the EU?

Malta is a true friend of Turkey in the EU but more importantly it is not ashamed to admit it because our 600-year history has taught us to respect each other. We fought each other in the past but both sides have understood the bravery of each other and this is turning into a great friendship.

As far as I am concerned Malta is no less important than Germany. You might have the smallest population and Germany the largest but every country has one vote in the (European) Council and having Malta’s support and vote is very important.

Turkey has had a flow of refugees from Syria. Doubts have been raised over whether the ceasefire there will hold. Is military intervention by the international community an option?

I am hoping and praying the ceasefire will hold but it is not adequate. We need to see democracy in Syria. The people’s will has to be respected.

In Libya’s case the international community was quick to act because the daily oil sales of Libya amounted to €500 million. Unfortunately, in Syria’s case, the international community is acting slowly. Those who are blocking a decision are partners in a crime.

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