03 November 2006

1196) Fearless, Self-Assertive Armenian Lobby in Europe

INTERVIEW

Turkey has entered a very critical period in its EU accession process. In the progress report to be released on Nov. 8, a comprehensive assessment will be revealed. With regard to the report, leaders of the EU member countries will talk with Turkey at the summit in December.

The newly coined term “train wreck” describes a possible halt in negotiations in the event Turkish seaports are not opened to Cypriot vessels.

Visiting Zaman daily’s headquarters just 10 days before the disclosure of the progress report, Graham Watson, leader of the Group of the Alliance of Democrats and Liberals in the European Parliament (EP), gave important messages about Turkey-EU relations.

If the talks are suspended in December, should the blame be put on Turkey squarely?
I think if the talks are suspended it is a . . signal of failure on both sides. Both sides because the EU would be failing really to fulfill the commitment which it made this time last year to Turkish entry into the union. Secondly, Turkey would be failing to live up its side of the burden, which is the reform process that brings it closer.

Do you question the EU position on Cyprus?
I think the Cyprus issue crystallizes the difficulty of the current situation, unfortunately in a very negative way. The Greek Cypriots have to realize that the good will of the EU toward them is limited. It has already been heavily drawn on in the rejection on Annan plan and I think the Turkish side has to recognize the EU cannot continue with what is effectively alien occupied territory. We have troops from outside of the EU on EU soil. It is surely not beyond the wit of our political leaders to find a way forward. The Finnish presidency, which is very well disposed toward Turkish EU membership, has come up with a formula which is very limited, but which if is accepted by both sides, would allow us see some progress. I hope that we can grasp that, knowing that it will be difficult for the Turkish government and difficult also for the presidency of the EU.

I guess the Greek side is very negative toward the Finnish proposal. What would be the cost of rejection by the Greek side?
I think there would be a considerable cost in terms of goodwill and I suspect we will start looking to the EU Court of Justice to move the issue forward. If the council of administers is unable to resolve it, is there any direct cost? Probably not, but one should never underestimate the value of political goodwill.

Do you think that it was a mistake to admit the Greek Cypriots [to the European Union] without a solution?
If it was a mistake, it was a mistake on the EU side which goes back five years earlier To compound the mistake by allowing Cyprus to enter the EU without the solution has compounded our difficulties. But at the same time, and this is part of the irony of politics, it has probably brought us further forward than we would have been had we simply said to the Greeks “No, go away and solve your problem before you join,” because it has concentrated the minds of policymakers on these difficulties in a situation where otherwise they would have been able to put the matter aside

It is very difficult for me to understand the position of Britain because from the beginning Britain was involved in preparing the Annan plan. Now, Britain sides with the other EU countries in pressuring Turkey to sign the Ankara protocol because there should be flexibility in the British side. What is the reason for change of attitude in the Cyprus issue?
It is a little too simplistic to imagine that positions of the members states are entirely consensual. It is true that most political forces in Britain will push very hard to get Turkey into the EU and to resolve Cyprus. It is true that under British presidency of the EU we agreed to open the accession negotiations but there are some political forces in Britain who question the speed and the ultimate destination of that journey. Just as there are some polical forces in France who are more relaxed about Turkish membership and what we are developing and this is the part of the genius of the EU. I think one of the most difficult things we are facing is the unilateral adoption by Turkey of the Ankara protocol, which is actually a bit more grit in the oyster.

Even if Turkey opens it ports, they will then want her to recognize the Greeks and this is impossible because the European Union is not determined to seek indemnities from the Greeks.

If you look at the EU from outside you tend to regard it as a political community. If, from the inside, you boil down the EU to its essentials it is still an economic community and therefore the emphasis on trade has a driving force for political reform. I would hope by limited opening up of Famagusta we were able to see economic benefits which would helpus resolve some of the outstanding political difficulties. Look at the history of the EU, what has been its great success? It has been its foreign policy, the realty is we have no foreign policy but the foreign policy of soft power, regime change by non-violenct means, has been a remarkable success. Because the carrot of the EU membership has been far more powerful than threats of any armed forces. We have to try to keep the process in motion.

Former German Foreign Minister Joshka Fisher had said it would be very unjust if negotiations had been halted because of Cyprus. Do you agree with him?
For the most part, yes. You can always talk about injustices but it never get you anywhere because yes, we can talk about the injustices to Turkey and as he says it would be. But we can also look at the past and find injustices to Greece. The essential succes of the EU is not looking back, but looking forward.

Is it possible to prevent a train crash by improving the political reform side of the equlibrium? I mean by changing, for instance, Aricle 301. Do you think it is likely the comission may not suggest suspension, but leave it to the council?
If you are asking me is there a trade off between domestic political reform in Turkey and a solution to the Cyprus qeustion, I am not sure. Turkish political reform is a neccassary condition for Turkish membership to the EU. The resolution of Cyprus is a different issue.

Do you think that maybe nine members of EU may ask for the suspension?
This is a very interestng calculation. Of course you can decide that the cost of the making another concession on Cyprus issue is too high politicly and therefore you can make a wager that the talks will continue. But it is a very high-risk strategy, particularly when you have difficulties in European public opinion, which are beyond the issue of Turkish membership. I think the overall climate in Brussels surounding the Eupean constitution, for example, I think the reaction of many EU governments to world development is just as much an attitude of fear as much as it is hope. Those of us who want Turkey in the EU, we are the hope-mongers. We are the ones who can see the opportunites, who recognizes the diffuculties but can see a common way forward which will allow us together to start to resolve many of the wider problems on the planet. There is a duty on us constantly to keep things moving forward, how ever difficult it is.

Is the European Union concerned at all that if negotiations are halted Turkey will gradually lean toward an Islamic block?
I have a lot of sympathy for the Turkish government. Because I think you have a government which is trying to reform the country very fast and there is a certain amount of elasticity in the mangement of public affairs.But you can only take people so far and so fast. There are two sides to the equation and you have to keep them in balance. I

There are some Greek PMs that suggest making Turkish an EU language. Should Turkish be an EU language?
We are moving in the direction of doing that. Euronews, our main semi-official broadcasting corporation, broadcasts in Turkish. Likewise many Turkish newspapers are publishing in diffrent European countries.

What is your position on Greek Cypriots occupying two seats in the EP?
There is a very strong lobby in the EU parliament in favor of Greek Cyprus and against Turkish Cyprus. As a result of political pressure from my group we have managed to establish an official contact group for relations between the EU parliament and the parliament of TRNC [Turkish Cyprus]. I hope we will able to develop that group and I hope one day it would become official parliamentary delegation. Fortunately, Turkey is extremely well represented in the EU by a number of very intelligent hard working MEPs of Turkish extraction elected in other EU countries.

Why did you abstain from voting for the EP report?
Because we felt that the report failed to do justice to Turkey on a number of grounds. I must say when we went into the vote my group was prepared to vote against it if certain amendments had been passed which would have condemned Turkey unfairly. As it was, those amendments did not pass. And therefore we thought we were able to say we would not support the report. The compromise within the parliamentary committee was undermined by the amendment submitted by the reporter and others late in the day.

But the perception in Turkey was that the report was written for a country that would never become a full member. Would you agree?
My group believes friendship with Turkey requires us to be candid with Turkey, and as such I’m sure we’ll say things that will upset Turkey. We will criticize your country for its still very bad human rights record, for failing to reform quickly enough, for Article 301, just as we ciriticized France for adopting a law on the Armneian genocide, which is a mirror image of Turkey’s Article 301. I think that is one of the obligations of friendship. One of the most difficult aspects of Turkish accession to the EU will be the process of looking in the mirror and the process of working out how to move forward.

The Armenian issue is not restricted to France; it was also raised by the EP. What is your opinion about the EP being so eager to address the issue? Should it be the parliament’s business to make decisions on historical and complicated issues? What can Turkey do to change the climate?
There is a strong Armenian lobby. They have a distorting affect on our politics. But if you look at the approach of the MEPs as they vote, they represent three different consituences of interest: their political family, their member state, and the region of their member state. Most British MEPs will vote in favor of Turkey because that’s the consensus of British public opinon; French MEPS will vote against it for the same reason. But what we need to build is a broad liberal approach which recognizes that we live in a secular world and Turkey is a secular society and whether someone is Islamic, Christian, or Jewish they are equal citizens.

But do you think the prestige of the EP is at stake when reports come out on Turkey?
You have to recognize the nature of parliaments: they represent the people. It only has the strengths and weaknesses of the people its represents. To question the EP’s legitimacy is the wrong approach because a parliament is for that reason legitimate. If the EP takes a position you can be sure it represents European public opinion. But one of the things I fear of Turkey’s EU is that we engage too much in megaphone diplomacy and not enough in getting on with the business of EU accession. My group questions the need to interview Turkey every six months. Once a year or every 18 months would be sufficient.

The Turkish public wants to meet with Armenian historians to discuss the issue, but it was rejected by the Armenian side. This leaves a negative impression on the public and diminishes support for Europe. Should there be a similar critique to the Armenian regard.

A few things strike me about the Armenian Genocide. First, it took place 50 years ago. Second, we don’t have enough records to know the true scale of atrocities. Third, these kinds of issues are best dealt with by historial commissions leading to an informed public debate rather than by politicians. But the biggest danger to the EU is nationalism and patriotism.We all have to face our past. Turkey will have to enter such a process as well, which I hope will lead to a re-examination of the Armenian genocide because I would not like to see Turkey join the EU and then we discuss Armenia membership and then Turkey makes demands to Armenia they way Cyprus has done to Turkey.

Regarding the French bill, in terms of freedom of expression do you think it is a big step backward?
It is a curious anomaly. I’m sure it will never become law because it will never get a vote in the Senate. It’s part of a process of national insecurity, which was reflected in the vote on the EU constitution.

If the EP is open to the effects of the Armenian lobby, do you guarantee such a parliament would not pave the way for similar drafts or laws?
I can provide no guarantee but it would suprise me. You should tread very carefully when you deal with issues that affect one or two member states Because the reason EU countries work together and achieve progress is their solidarity, committment and common goals.

Do you think Turkey is missing an opportunity to teach France a lesson by not ammending Article 301?

If Turkey were to amend Article 301 it would be seen as more progressive than France on these issues. I do hope we can get the reform process in Turkey back on track. When Erdogan’s party came to office they made so much progress in the incredible 18 month period of political opportunity. Four major reform packages passed through parliament. There were cheers up to the rooftops of the EU. Inevitably, they ran into some stumbling blocks and we were all worried the right-wing conservative forces would reassert their iron grip on Turkish politics. To Mr. Erdogan’s credit, he has had the stamina and imagination to continue to promote reforms even if they aren’t materializing as quickly. The best thing Turkey can do is to keep the reform process moving. Every Turk should commit to reform, and every Turkish business should move in that direction as well as national support for the process.

Why doesn’t the AKP apply to be a member of your group and if they do, what would be your attitude?
We recognize Erdogan’s party is primarily composed of two philosophies: conservative and liberal. We would welcome integrating the AKP into our structure. If the AKP applied for membership of Liberal International we would look very favorably on their application.

Do you think Turkey is overplaying the argument of “clash of civilizations”?
We all fear a religious, political backlash in Turkey, but I don’t think it’ll happen. I’m convinced a majority of the Turkish people want their country to develop as a modern, democratic, secular state and that means taking the basis provided by Ataturk and developing it further. This from looking at the rights of women, the treatment of minorities, specifically the position of the Kurds. It also means looking at the role of the military and the independence of the judiciary.

Do you think the EU has a responsibility to push pious Turkish Muslims into creating a Muslim democratic trend?
When I look at a Muslim, I don’t see them as a Muslim; I’m interested if they share my ideals of democracy and civil society or if they have a different concept of that society. I’m just as much at home with a Muslim liberal as I am with a Christian liberal or a Buddhist liberal or any other. Increasingly the challenges we face are challenges where people will come together on ideological and humanitarian considerations rather than others.

The disucsuion between The EU and the Turkish Chief of Staff comes to mind, do you have similar experiences with other member states?
In any democratic society you have a huge range of dialogues going on, sometime they look more official, sometimes less, but nobody questions that the essential dialogue will go on between EU governments and the Turkish government, as well as the EU people and the Turkish people.

Ataturk once said to Turkish military officials; “If you like to play politics, don’t wear your uniforms.” For the AKP there is another problem for pushing reforms. It has a conservative link, and the main the problem with the religious Turkish Muslim community is the headscarf issue, but for those issues they didn’t receive any support from European bodies. At Turkish universities, headscarves are banned, but there is no such ban at European universities. Is it possible to raise this issue as a human rights problem?
We’ve got to relax about this. In my concept of a liberal society, you don’t tell people what they’re allowed to wear. As far as I’m concerned, somebody can walk naked on the street if they want to, although it would be a crime in Britain. In a liberal society you allow people the freedom to do what they want to do provided their freedom does not impinge on the rights of others. Personally, if I were a woman I would not wear a headscarf, but I would never prevent anybody else’s right to do so.

So you don’t agree that the ban at universities is legitimate.

I can see the reasons for the ban within a Turkish concept at an institute of learning, but I don’t consider it a liberal act.


Selcuk Gultasli
November 02, 2006
zaman.com

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