As tensions are high in the eastern Mediterranean — from Cyprus to Syria and from Gaza to Egypt — European and Turkish leaders should talk with each other more than ever as their interests and strategic goals in the region overlap, according to this week’s guest for Monday Talk.
Alexander Graf Lambsdorff, member of the European Parliament from Germany and vice chair of the Group of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE Group), has said Europe and Turkey have a “real interest” in having a strategic dialogue.
“We need to talk about these things and find solutions to these questions. It’s very difficult, takes a long time sometimes, but we must avoid developing political ideas that would lead to a divergence of European interests and strategic goals and Turkish interests and strategic goals,” he said in relation to challenges in the stability of the eastern Mediterranean.
In a recent visit to İstanbul, he elaborated on the issue while answering our questions.
You stress the point that the EU and Turkey need to renew their dialogue. Would you elaborate on this idea? Why is it important?
Turkey is an extremely important country, and the European Union is very important, too. We have had a long and close relationship for many decades, but paradoxically, with the opening of the accession negotiations we’ve seen a cooling of the relationship because the process does not work well enough. That has led to loss of interest on both sides. Therefore, I suggest to continue with the accession process but also to look at other options for cooperation, integration and for common strategies between Turkey and the EU because I believe we need a positive atmosphere just as we need technical and political negotiations.
The EU seems to have other priorities at this time other than the accession process.
The EU is trying to stabilize the euro, and that takes a lot of energy as this concerns the welfare of our society. Enlargement is indeed much less of a concern to our citizens right now.
There is a belief in Turkish society that Turkey’s accession process has been stalled because of some of the leaders in the EU — like Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy — and there are anti-Turkey and anti-Turkish feelings in Europe. What do you think about this?
In certain parts of Europe there are anti-Islamic feelings. I would not call this anti-Turkish; it is different. For me, a member of a liberal political party that advocates the strict separation of the religious from the political sphere, this is a completely unacceptable position in any kind of political debate. On the other hand, there is a legitimate political argument about the merits of Turkish accession, and there are some leaders in Europe who say it would be better if Turkey were not to accede to the European Union. As nobody expects that the negotiations will conclude in the next few years, however, this is not so important, as the entire European and Turkish leadership will have changed before a decision on Turkish accession has to be taken in earnest.
‘It is utterly unacceptable that the EU is incapable of admitting a majority Muslim country’
You said there are anti-Islamic feelings in Europe. There is also Islamophobia. Which one do you think is more prevalent? What is the distinction between the two?
I would not make a great distinction between the two. Some conservatives in Europe think of the EU as a club of countries that is incapable of admitting a majority Muslim country. This is utterly unacceptable. It is a minority position, not a position that is widely shared by citizens. If we reintroduce religion into politics, we open a Pandora’s box. Europe has much experience with religion trying to dominate politics; indeed, our most terrible war was fought over that question, the Thirty Years’ War from 1618-1648. At the end, the peace deal made sure that religion and politics were to be kept separate.
Would Turkey’s inclusion in the European Union help or not in eliminating Islamophobia or anti-Islamic feelings?
The accession process of Turkey to the EU is a political process. It is not a social process, and it is not a religious process. From a political point of view, one needs to analyze whether it is economically feasible, whether it has political support and whether Turkey fulfills the acquis. All of those things must be checked but people should not have high hopes that membership of any particular country is going to change the minds of prejudiced people.
Now that the French elections are coming up, do you expect that more anti-Turkey positions will be highlighted?
I hope not. You may hear about two issues: one related to the Armenian question and the other to Turkey’s possible European Union membership. On the Armenian question, everyone knows what the discussion is about, and on the EU accession, a clear majority of the French population, not just the leadership, is against Turkey’s accession. So some politicians may choose to exploit those feelings by linking the Armenian issue with EU accession, and therefore create an atmosphere that makes it difficult for France and Turkey to rebuild a constructive relationship.
‘Strategic dialogue not replacement of Turkey’s accession process’
You also stress that Turkey and the EU need a strategic dialogue, aiming at cooperation rather than competition, especially in the eastern Mediterranean.
The entire issue of stability in the eastern Mediterranean is difficult right now. We have a terrible situation in Syria, tensions between the Palestinians and Israelis, extremists in power in Gaza, a changing Egypt that becomes more difficult to predict, hardly any progress on the island of Cyprus and now in addition to that we see the exploration of resources off the coast of Cyprus. So the entire eastern Mediterranean right now is an area where challenges for the EU, the Middle East and Turkey overlap. Turkey and the EU member states are nearly all NATO allies. We need to talk about these things and find solutions to these questions. It’s very difficult, takes a long time sometimes, but we must avoid developing political ideas that would lead to a divergence of European interests and strategic goals and Turkish interests and strategic goals. Therefore, starting in the eastern Mediterranean, we have a real interest in having this strategic dialogue. But if you look at other areas around Turkey like Central Asia, the Caucasus or sub-Saharan Africa, you have an active Turkish role in all of those areas, and you have an active European role in all of those areas. So why not compare notes and see where we can cooperate. There might be instances where we will have to agree to disagree. But then, as allies, we should be aware of that because if we disagree, we must be able to manage that responsibly.
Do you hear any arguments in Europe against strategic dialogue with Turkey?
No, not at all. The only argument I hear sometimes is from Turkish friends who are concerned that such a dialogue may become a replacement for the accession process, which is definitely not the intention. I’m glad therefore that the Turkish government has accepted this invitation to enter into a strategic dialogue.
‘Turkey’s exclusion by France to participate in discussions over Libya was profoundly wrong’
You emphasize Turkey’s position more than the EU’s, especially in relation to the Arab Spring. Would you explain the reasons behind this?
If one looks at a map, it is clear that Turkey is a very important country in a very delicate area and has assets that it can bring to the discussion in relation to what is going on in North Africa and the Middle East. The Europeans should try to use these resources as we have a role in NATO. We are well advised in Brussels and in national capitals — London, Paris, etc. — to have a constant dialogue with Ankara. One thing that completely baffled me is that in the early stages of planning the Libyan military campaign, Turkey was not invited by France to participate in the discussion. This was profoundly wrong. Because whatever you think about accession, denying that Turkey has an important strategic role and is a crucial player is very short-sighted. After all, Turkey is the ally with the second largest armed forces inside NATO.
Is the axis shift debate regarding Turkey still continuing in Europe?
There was a fear for some time that Turkey may turn away from Europe and turn its back on NATO. In 2003, Turkey did not allow American troops to use its territory for the war in Iraq, and then came the deterioration in Turkish-Israeli relations. Having said all this, a closer analysis of Turkish foreign policy in its immediate neighborhood and in the regions with which Turkey was supposed to construct new axes does not make us think that the fears are justified. There is no Ankara-Tehran axis; there is no Ankara-Damascus axis; there is no Ankara-Moscow axis. Ankara’s strongest axis is with Brussels and Washington, D.C. Strategically speaking, that makes sense. Europe is Turkey’s economic future if the country wants to become a high-tech nation, and I believe it does. The US is the leading power in NATO and Turkey’s security guarantee. Turkey’s strategic interests are best met in the West and the North, even though the South and the East may be a bit more interesting than they used to be.
‘First, UN should try its best to resolve Cyprus issue’
Turkish officials have said that Turkey will freeze relations with the European Union if Greek Cyprus is given the EU presidency in 2012. Do you think this would lead to a new low point in ties between the European Union and Turkey?
Announcing a freeze of Turkish-European relations was not wise. One should recognize that Cyprus is not the only small country in the EU with a big neighbor who may not always like all the policies the small member decides to pursue. For example, if Latvia or Estonia holds the EU presidency and Russia is unhappy with some of the policies of these countries, Russia may decide to boycott the EU, and you could certainly expect that the rest of the EU would close ranks around these countries. For a candidate country — and Turkey is a candidate country — it is necessary to think through the implications of such a statement. I hope a constructive way of handling this issue can be found for the second half of 2012.
If there is no solution found despite all efforts of the UN to the problems on the island of Cyprus, do you think the European Union should assume a role in solving the problem?
We have had United Nations efforts for decades trying to resolve the situation on the island. Let’s now have the UN try their best; they have our full support. If there is no solution found by the end of this year, it is everyone’s concern — the EU, Greek Cypriots, Turkish Cypriots and Turkey — to find a new approach in solving this problem. If that means Europeanizing the process, it may be worth trying also because as an EU member state, Cyprus will have a special obligation to engage constructively in an EU-led process.
‘Turkish politicians say Europe is less important for them, but…’
You hold talks with both ruling and opposition party politicians in Turkey and talk about the accession process. Do you see serious divergences in their approaches toward Turkey’s EU accession process?
While there is a certain frustration with the accession process on all sides, no responsible politician from either the government or the opposition has indicated to me that Europe was becoming less important in their opinion. There has been a set of developments in the Turkish neighborhood that has led to more activities vis-à-vis the countries in Turkey’s immediate neighborhood. However, as I said above, if one takes a closer look at this trend, one sees that this has not always led to an improvement, be it with regard to Syria, Iran or Armenia. Europe is still Turkey’s largest trading partner, the largest partner in direct foreign investment, the largest destination for migration and remigration, the source of high tech and know-how and so on. With 500 million people and high purchasing power, the EU is the largest single market in the world. The proximity to Europe and NATO membership are the source of Turkey’s strength, and responsible leaders in Turkey recognize this full well.
‘Regardless of accession, we must continue to work together’
Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was in Germany recently to celebrate the 50th year of the start of Turkish migration to Germany. At a joint press conference with Chancellor Angela Merkel, Erdoğan complained that the [terrorist Kurdistan Workers’ Party] PKK was able to collect 6 million euros in Germany, and Erdoğan has criticized Germany for not dealing with the PKK, echoing similar remarks during a visit in February to Düsseldorf. What do you think the German government can do to deal with the PKK?
Let me start by saying that in comparison to the resources available to the Turkish state and taking into account the wealth of Germany, 6 million euros is a very small amount of money. It is surprising that the prime minister should even mention such a small sum. As for the PKK, it is considered a terrorist organization by German authorities. It is monitored by our domestic intelligence service; its activities are followed very closely by the police. As far as I know, no terrorist acts have been prepared, planned or carried out by PKK activists from inside Germany in a very long time.
In an interview with the German Bild newspaper, Erdoğan criticized Germany’s stand on Turkey’s EU aspirations, saying the EU’s largest member state had “abandoned” Turkey on the issue of EU accession. Your ideas on that.
When negotiations started there was no political consensus about Turkish accession in Europe. Because of this, the negotiations were structured in a way that each and every member state can legally block each and every chapter of the negotiations. So now, we are faced with a blockade in the Council. But that is not Germany’s fault. At the time, Turkey pushed for negotiations despite the obvious lack of support for Turkish accession in some very important member states. So when the prime minister criticizes Germany, he should consider that Turkey bears part of the responsibility for the current difficulties as well. All of us must recognize, however, that mutual recriminations are not helpful. We face so many challenges that we must move ahead and define a new positive agenda. We need a re-launch of a meaningful Turkish-European dialogue. Turkey and the EU must engage with one another in a constructive and respectful manner because no matter what happens regarding accession, we must continue to work together as neighbors, allies and friends.
‘We strongly favor a liberalized visa regime with Turkey’
Is there any progress regarding visa liberalization?
As European liberals, we strongly favor a liberalized visa regime with Turkey. We must make progress with visa facilitation for groups of travelers like students, business people, academics, artists and so on. In Germany, where we are in government, the talks are going on to find a solution to this problem. We try to push the conservatives on this.
Alexander Graf Lambsdorff
Member of the European Parliament and vice chair of the Group of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE Group), he is from Germany’s Free Democratic Party (FDP), which currently serves as the junior coalition partner to the Union (Christian Democratic Union and Christian Social Union) in the German federal government. He is the founding member of both the Atlantic Initiative Germany and the German-Turkish Foundation. He served in the German Foreign Office in 1995-2003.
13 November 2011, Sunday / YONCA POYRAZ DOĞAN, İSTANBUL