Turkish Ambassador to the EU Selim Yenel explains Ankara’s viewpoint regarding security and described his country’s political and diplomatic positions
Turkey has been at the front line of the fight against terrorism over recent months, facing attacks in many major cities including Istanbul and the capital Ankara in 2016, as well as in Izmir in January. Given this threat, the country has been involved in the Syrian conflict for some months and forms part of the international coalition there. As a neighbour to both Iraq and Syria, as well as the EU and Russia, it is a key territory regarding the flows of refugees, hosting millions of displaced people.
Within this framework, Ankara has been co-operating, diplomatically and militarily, with the European Union and Russia – a challenge compounded by the assassination of the latter’s own ambassador to Turkey, Andrey Karlov, in December of last year. The co-operation nevertheless faces many difficulties in terms of financial support and political assistance, as well as in numerous other external events. As a major stakeholder in the region, the relationships Turkey has with powerful parties remain key to solving these crises: in the Mediterranean Sea, in the Middle East, and on its own soil.
As the ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary at the Mission of Turkey to the European Union, Selim Yenel is in close professional and diplomatic contact with the EU’s institutions and their leaders. PEN spoke with him as he introduced Ankara’s stance regarding security, as well describing the Turkish capital’s political and diplomatic positions.
When it comes to security and terrorism in Turkey, who are the main protagonists?
Turkey has been facing a continuous terrorist threat because of different actors. We indeed have to deal with the PKK (the Kurdistan Workers’ Party), with Da’esh and also with all these elements that are surrounding Turkey. We are, unfortunately, always facing this terrorist threat, and we have actually been for several years now, but especially today because of the situation in Syria. We are therefore taking all the measures we can, but a lot of attacks happened over the year 2016. It is a very difficult situation.
The PKK has been a terrorist group for years and years, and its fighters have increased their activities. Some terrorist organisations are indeed linked with each other, and Da’esh has, of course, become an increasing threat over the past years as we have been trying to resolve the situation in Syria with the international coalition. We are having some successes; they therefore want to hurt us as often and as strongly as possible.
These groups are the two major targets that we have, and they are at the same level. They have similar tactics, they are doing things together. They now both use suicide bombers, while PKK did not have suicide bombers some years ago. It shows how they are connected.
To what extent does Ankara take part in the conflict in Syria?
We are intervening in two ways: diplomatically and militarily. On the military side, as I told you, we are fighting against the Da’esh groups, the so-called ‘Islamic State’. Of course, there are too many factors in Syria that make the diplomatic situation complex: there are the Russians, the Iranians, and so many different actors. An agreement, however, has been concluded between the two sides [the Syrian government and rebel fighters], which entered into force on 29 December, so Turkey has also been successful diplomatically, together with Russia and Iran, with regard finding a possible end to the conflict.
In what ways does Ankara co-operate with Moscow?
To understand the relationship between Russia and Turkey, we have to go back more than a year. Until we shot the Russian military plane, relations were very good. But after we shot it, our relations were very, very cold for seven or eight months.
We managed to overcome this difficulty. Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdog˘an talked about that and we have made our relations better. Although the Russian ambassador was shot in Ankara, we have been co-operating together, stronger than before, and we have seen positive results with regard to Syria. Nobody wanted the escalation of violence, nobody wanted the killings to continue, so we have been able to talk together and achieve agreement on a ceasefire. We hope there will be no more conflict in Syria in the future. Both countries are making progress.
Does Turkey have adequate support from Western countries in the fight against terrorism?
We actually don’t – especially regarding the PKK. It is considered a terrorist organisation by the European Union, but it is lip service. We have not seen the EU taking actions against this group. For example, they have been able to use financial resources, they have been able to talk to people in Europe, and they have been able to force people to provide them with financial assistance. They have also been able to travel in the EU and they are sometimes in the European Parliament. We are, then, seeing lip service with the PKK, nothing more than that.
We therefore would like to see more actions – real actions. The EU should put them in jail or send them to Turkey, which we have not seen yet.
What are the current views towards the EU/Turkey agreement regarding refugee flows? Are the Turkish people happy about the latest political developments?
It is a mixed picture. On 18 March 2016 we agreed on several things. For our part, we have to stop the flows of migrants to the EU, and the agreement has actually succeeded in doing so because whoever goes to the Greek islands will be sent back. It sends a strong message to migrants and smugglers, so we can therefore consider the agreement a success in this regard.
On the other hand, the EU has also been committed to a number of things, for example visa liberalisation and the opening of more chapters for EU integration, more financial assistance to the Syrians, and more dialogue. A number of these promises have been complied with, but not all of them.
Since the attempted coup in Turkey on 15 July, things have not been going well. The EU did not understand how important it was for Turkey, how dramatic it was. It took some time for them to understand what it meant for Turkey. We turned the page on this. The European Parliament nevertheless saw the reaction of Turkey in a different light. It passed a resolution under which the EU should stop negotiations with Turkey. Fortunately, in the Council of the EU, cooler heads prevailed and the EU said no to this resolution, although Austria wanted to stop negotiations. In that sense, we believe that the member states have given positive signs, as they have refused the European Parliament’s and Austria’s positions, and say they should continue negotiations with Turkey.
Right now, the negotiations are upheld but cannot continue because of the political situation. We believe that if the Cyprus talks are going quite well, they will restart negotiations next month in Geneva, Switzerland. Then, we hope that a solution will be found and this will be a major change in our relations with the EU. Several options can then be used in a very positive sense and we hope that the EU will take this direction.
Are Turkey’s relations with individual member states better than with the EU as a whole?
No. We of course have closer relations with some countries, but when you look at the EU as a whole, it has been able to keep on talking with Turkey. Only one country did not back the resolution, and the EU refused them. So, it shows that the EU as a whole really wants the dialogue with Turkey to continue.
Regarding the content of the EU/Turkey agreement, how many refugees currently abide in Turkey, and under what conditions?
We have around three million refugees in our country, which is the highest total in the world, and we have spent more than $20bn (~€18.9bn) on welcoming them.
The amount the EU should provide for assistance is only €3bn, but this money has not been totally sent yet. We are providing assistance not only regarding housing but in education and health services, too. We are taking care of all these people.
There is no racism, there is no xenophobia. We have been able to incorporate them in our society, without as many problems as we have seen in the EU. The EU has promised to take, on a voluntary basis, some Syrians, but it has not done so. We therefore think the EU does not comply with its promises also with this regard.
Do you think the agreement is a new cornerstone in becoming an EU member state in the future?
We certainly hope so because right now, the only reason why we are not making progress is a political reason – because of the Cyprus situation, and we believe that once the Cyprus situation is solved, which is actually possible in the coming months, we will have the opportunity to move ahead on the chapters, which are politically blocked now.
We believe that it could be a major step in the integration process. We of course know we have a lot to do: we have our own commitments, we have our own tasks to complete. But once Cyprus is settled, we will not have any political or superficial obstacle to overcome in becoming an EU member state.
At what point in the future do you think this could happen?
Well, that is a difficult situation. It depends on how fast we move on the reforms. As I said, we need to solve Cyprus. If we do not solve Cyprus, that will not happen at all. But if we do solve Cyprus, it all depends on the reforms and changes, and how the EU will be able to integrate us. Today, I do not think the EU is ready to integrate Turkey, and the EU has decided that there will not be any new enlargement by 2019. We are therefore looking at the early 2020s.
Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary
Mission of Turkey to the European Union
This article first appeared in issue 21 of Pan European Networks: Government, which is now available here.