I overslept the Fall of the Berlin Wall. Christian Mackrodt

Hold on tight, Europe! Turkey is coming to your rescue

The Turkish minister for EU Affairs Egemen Bagis is known as a reformer and as the driving force behind Turkey’s negotiations with the EU. He sat down with Daniel Fallenstein and Inanna Fronius to talk about foreign policy and the progress of EU memberhsip negotiations.

The European: The soccer player Mesut Özil has been criticized for choosing the German national team over the Turkish team. When you see him on the field, do you feel pride or jealousy?
Bagis: I believe that Mesut Özil is one of the best players in Europe. I hope there will be other football players of Turkish origin playing not only for Germany but for countries throughout Europe and the World. He is a good model of integration and inspiration for Turkey’s EU membership.

The European: Turkey has wanted to become an EU member state for decades. Are you beginning to lose your patience?
Bagis: Turkey won’t lose its patience. Every day that passes by, Europe’s dependency on Turkey is increasing but Turkey’s dependency on Europe is decreasing. Right now as we speak, the median age in Turkey is 28 and the median age in Germany is 45. Over 70 per cent of the energy resources, a very important issue for Europe, are around Turkey’s borders. Turkey is one of the very few countries where a culture of Islam and a culture of democracy have coexisted for more than 200 years. This makes Turkey a very important player in the context of European integration. Additionally, Turkey has the largest military and the fastest growing economy of Europe. Therefore I think the relations between Turkey and the EU are based on a win-win platform. We need each other. Neither party has the luxury to lose the other and we should not let daily frustrations or political exploitation attempts hijack this very important project. The European Union is after all the greatest peace project in the history of mankind.

The European: With Turkey as a member, the Eastern frontier of the EU would shift towards Iran, Iraq and Syria…
Bagis: Maybe this is what it takes to bring more peace to this difficult part of the world. Every time Europe enlarges, prosperity, safety and solidarity also expand. It is in the interest of Europe to eliminate some of the threats it is faced with.

The European: Turkey has strengthened its ties with Iran. How does that affect your country’s relationship with other European nations?
Bagis: Turkey’s ties with Iran are not especially strong compared to other European countries. I believe the relations between Germany and Iran are also very good, and so are the relations of France and Iran. We live in a global world. The formula for ensuring that Iran does not have nuclear weapons is not through isolation but through integration, involvement, communication and dialogue. Iran should not be a nation that is looked down upon. We are talking about one of the oldest civilizations in the world.

The European: Will Turkey play along with European plans about instituting sanctions against Iran?
Bagis: When the EU made these decisions, Turkey was not consulted. But when the Security Council voted on the sanctions, Turkey had to make her case because we believe that the sanctions are not the solution to the problem. However, now that the international community has made a decision, Turkey as a law abiding state, will obey the decision even if we may have doubts about its success.

The European: Would you say that Germany and France fear a loss of influence if Turkey became a member state? Is this one of the reasons why access negotiations are so slowly progressing?
Bagis: Once a French minister told me that “we founded the EU, it is our baby and the day you come in, you will have more representation than we do. This is not easy for us to digest.” My immediate response was: “What do you want to do, establish a security council within the EU like you have in the UN? Do you want to be a permanent member of this council?” He said: “No, because it is not feasible.” This incident taught me about the underlying fears of some countries. However, Turkey is not bringing additional burdens to the EU, Turkey is coming to take some of the existing ones away. Our motto is: "Hold on tight Europe, Turkey is coming to your rescue.” We will share a big slice of the cake but we will make the cake much bigger for everyone’s benefit.

The European: You mentioned Turkey’s energy resources. What role does your country want to play: energy hub for Europe or bridge between Europea and the Asian energy suppliers?
Bagis: Turkey has been a bridge and a hub for centuries. We are the Eastern tip of the West, and the Western tip of the East. Turkey has been a bridge between Islam and Christianity, between civilizations and cultures, and also between energy resources and energy consumers. Turkey’s cooperation is a must for Europe to resolve its energy crisis and Turkey is willing to become a part of the solution. But while Turkey is so essential and so accommodating to Europe in this issue, not being able to open the chapter on energy in our negotiations with the European Union is a shame. The issue of Cyprus, a beautiful sunbathed island in the Mediterranean without any energy problems of its own, is hijacking the energy interests of 500 million Europeans. This is not fair. We have to convince our friends that this issue cannot be an impediment on the road towards our EU membership.

The European: The Union for the Mediterranean is celebrating its anniversary. At first, Turkey was opposed to it. Has that perception changed?
Bagis: The Union of the Mediterranean is yet another platform for global players to have a dialogue. Turkey is – believe it or not – a member of more than 40 different international organizations and none of them is an alternative to another. Turkey’s aspirations to become a part of the European Union are not new. Turkey first applied for membership in 1959. Turkey has kept on this route to become a member with determination and will continue to do so. Having other opportunities in other organizations is not an alternative; it is complimentary to full EU membership.

The European: According to a recent poll, 13% of the Turkish people favor joining the EU while 20% prefer an orientation towards the Greater Middle East. In Germany, 73% oppose Turkey joining the European Union. What do you say to the doubters?
Bagis: My answer is: Do not rush. Today’s Turkey is not the Turkey of 50 years ago when it first applied. In five years, Turkey will once again be a different country. Let us tackle the question of perception once we complete the negotiations. Right now, we have to focus on the process. The process makes Turkey a stronger economy and also a better country in terms of human rights, a country that is more in line with European rules and regulations. At the same time, it ensures Europe that Turkey is a trustable ally and partner. The day we complete the negotiations, we can ask what the Turkish public opinion and the European public opinion is. But there is one thing I know: every applicant country that has ever started negotiations has eventually and successfully completed these negotiations. This is not the time to make judgments but to give the process a chance. Europe and Turkey must work on improving themselves first.

The European: Critics point out that European culture is defined by the Judeo-Christian heritage. How does Turkey fit into that picture?
Bagis: The word “Europe” was the name of a princess that lived in today’s Turkey. Paris was the name of another prince that lived in today’s Turkey. European culture is shaped not only by Judeo-Christian values but by human values, by Byzantine values, by Roman values, by Ottoman values and by Celtic values. We are all working towards a better world and we need each other. All religions, Christianity, Judaism and Islam teach us to be good people. But at the end of the day we all live in secular societies. We have to work towards making this world a better place and a safer place for the future generations.

The European: Would Turkey’s NATO membership become less important when Turkey joins the EU?
Bagis: No, one thing is not connected to the other. Turkey’s membership to NATO would be enhanced when Turkey joins the EU because we could be more closely integrated into European decision-making on defense and security policies. Right now as the largest military of Europe and the second largest military of NATO we are involved in many discussions but don’t have voting rights on defense policy. That does not make any sense.

The European: What do you ask of the EU – and specifically Germany – as the negotiations progress?
Bagis: We want fair negotiations, we want fair treatment. We don’t want any favors but we don’t want any additional burdens either. We must do away with political roadblocks that slow down and threaten the current negotiations. We want more cooperation in our fight against international terrorism. We want to put an end to the visa nonsense. For example, citizens of non-European countries can enter the EU without visas but Turkish citizens are still waiting in line at the European consulates. This is very insulting. We want a fair solution regarding the Cyprus issue. We would like to work together with our German friends to better integrate the Turkish community in Germany. They should become model citizens of Germany with better education and with better language skills – but at the same time we should give them a chance to be proud of their traditional heritage.

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