Diplomatic World Interview with Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs and Director for EU Affairs H.E. Faruk Kaymakcı

Diplomatic World Interview with Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs and Director for EU Affairs H.E. Faruk Kaymakcı

 

Your Excellency, you have mentioned on a few occasions that Turkey wants to proceed with a positive agenda with the European Union – what are the key pillars upon which this positive agenda should be based and taken forward?

The positive agenda is also proposed by the EU side at the European Councils. We do not need to look for new ideas. We have already the structure: the 18 March Statement with all six dimensions.

The first dimension is the accession negotiations. Unfortunately, our EU accession negotiations have been brought to a standstill due to some political issues even though it is mainly a technical process. Consequently, our accession negotiations did not advance as fast as we wanted. But we are still a negotiating candidate country. Turkey’s EU accession perspective should be protected and strengthened.

The more Turkey believes that it will become a member of the EU, the faster the reforms will happen in Turkey and the better Turkey-EU relations will be. But if Turkey feels being discriminated among candidate countries, or pushed away from the rest of Europe, then we will have less and less trust towards each other, and this is not helpful.

We are not saying that we will join the EU tomorrow. Turkey will join the EU only when we fulfil the membership criteria. But also when we have a better understanding between the Member States and candidate countries. Until that time, we should not have any pre-judgement and should continue the accession process. Therefore, the accession process has to be revitalised.

The second dimension – this is a low hanging fruit – refers to Turkey-EU high-level dialogue meetings. We had already established high-level dialogue meetings between the related Turkish Ministers and European Commissioners on economy, energy, transport and foreign policy. However, they have been suspended by the EU side. Later on, the EU decided to have new high-level dialogue meetings on climate change, migration and security as well as on health after the COVID-19 pandemic. Therefore, we would like to hold all these high-level dialogue meetings, both the new and old ones, but also to revitalize already established mechanisms between Turkey and the EU such as the Association Council meetings and Political Directors’ meetings. Turkey should also be invited to all meetings that candidate countries are regularly invited, such as Gymnich meetings and others.

The third dimension of positive agenda would be the update of the Customs Union. Turkey already implements the EU’s trade and competition policy in line with Turkey-EU Customs Union (CU). Turkey, in terms of trade, economy, and competition can be already considered a member of the EU. No other candidate country has a CU with the EU. The CU, which has been in force since 1996, needs to be updated. The updated version can include services, agriculture, energy and maybe other areas. As Turkey and the EU economies are highly interlinked and interdependent, the modernization of the CU would create a win-win situation for both sides.

Half of the Turkish exports towards the EU are composed of goods produced by EU companies in Turkey. Turkish companies have also billions of dollars of investment in other European countries. By the way, it is not easy to differentiate between the Turkish and German companies, as there are so many joint ventures. Also, the Green Deal requires us to update the CU since the new trade mechanism has to be green and digital. So, we cannot continue with the system of 1996.

Fourth dimension is visa liberalization. The EU and Turkey have agreed that when Turkey fulfils 72 benchmarks on visa liberalization dialogue, Turkish citizens should be able to travel freely– we are not talking here about the free movement of labour – within the Schengen zone. We are working on fulfilling the remaining few benchmarks.

Due to the current visa system, Turkish citizens cannot travel freely in the Schengen zone. Entrepreneurs of the small and medium-sized companies are faced with constant difficulties. Thousands of Turkish students who are part of the Erasmus+ Programme and researchers who are part of the Horizon Europe Programme cannot easily travel into the Schengen zone. They have to wait for weeks to get visa to come to Belgium. We consider the visa liberalization important to ensure people-to-people dialogue, but also to prepare our common future, because this is the Erasmus generation. This is the Horizon generation. I think exchanges between the peoples of Europe is vitally important. This is why we have to be more flexible in terms of visa liberalization for Turkish citizens. 

Counter-terrorism is another important dimension as there is a mistrust issue between Turkey and some of the Western countries. When we see terrorist organizations like the PKK acting in European capitals, making propaganda, recruiting people, practising money laundering or getting involved in the narco business, we are worried for all of us and our common future.  This requires us to have a good cooperation in the fight against terrorism, all sorts of terrorist organisations including PKK, Al-Qa’ida, Daesh, Fetullahist Terrorist Organization (FETO) etc.

We would like to be like Luxembourg or the Netherlands, where we have no complicated neighbours or no close terrorist threats. This global challenge necessitates our close cooperation. I think it is important that we come to the same level everywhere in terms of our fight against all sorts of terrorist organizations.

The sixth dimension is migration management. Today, we are faced with a major challenge of irregular migration. Turkey hosts 4.2 million people, the largest refugee community in the world, of which 3.7 million are Syrians and the rest are Asians, mostly from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Iran, Iraq, Sri Lanka and Africans, etc.

This is a very heavy burden that we cannot assume alone and we expect the EU side is to share this. We had some sort of a deal with the EU related to migration. Within the framework of the deal, we gave two promises; preventing illegal crossings and taking back illegally crossed people from the Greek islands. We kept our promises by taking all the people returned by Greece until February 2020 and by preventing more than 2 million additional refugees that could have otherwise gone to other European countries beyond Turkey.

I remember the former president of the European Commission, Mr Juncker, speaking at the European Parliament, saying that we succeeded 97%. This is a huge success, thanks to Turkey. The EU also gave four promises, which were unfortunately not fully kept. The EU promised that for every refugee being returned to Turkey from the Greek islands, a Syrian would be resettled to the EU. The EU kept this promise of 1 to 1.

The second promise concerned a package of EUR 3+3 billion to be mobilized by 2018. By the way, this money is allocated to the refugees in Turkey. Unfortunately, in parts of Europe, people think that this money is given to Turkey or transferred to the Turkish national budget. The migration burden has so far cost us more than EUR 40 billion.  We are talking about only EUR 6 billion of EU support for Syrians in Turkey and out of these 6 billion, only EUR 4.2 billion has been spent as of today. The flow of the funds is very slow, very bureaucratic, even though it is the fastest mechanism in the EU system.

What we are saying basically is that the EU should speed up this flow of funds, but also increase the amount of funding, because the number of refugees is not decreasing. Unfortunately the number is increasing day-by-day and after the Afghan crisis, there will be more refugees. Due to the pandemic millions of refugees are also expected to head towards Turkey and the rest of Europe. We have to manage this better. Our new migration deal has to focus on dealing especially with the situation in Northern Syria, which is also the fourth promise of the EU. The Article 9 of 18 March Statement requires joint endeavours by the EU, Member States and Turkey to create better living conditions in Northern Syria to enable safe return of the Syrians. This promise was never kept by the EU.

So what we are saying now is that the new migration deal, especially after the Afghan crisis, has to focus on cooperation in and return to Northern Syria, cooperation on the Turkish-Iranian border, joint action in source countries and fair burden sharing in terms of financial support and resettlement.

We need to cooperate in Afghanistan, for example, through running Kabul airport and creating necessary conditions to ensure that young Afghans can stay and work in the country. It is not a big deal. I served in Afghanistan and with small investment packages you can create a big impact. Instead of spending EUR 600 per refugee in Turkey or in the rest of Europe, it is better to spend maybe EUR 50-100 per person through some investment, which is more sustainable and keeps people in their home country. This is feasible since Turkey has a lot of influence in Afghanistan, and there are many Turkish companies operating in the country, building bridges, roads, dams, and running factories. I think we need to create this opportunity for the young Afghans. Otherwise it will be complicated for us to curb these irregular migration flows towards us and in Europe.

Another aspect of a positive agenda would be to enable Turkish civil society, Turkish students and researchers to fully and easily enjoy EU programmes such as Erasmus +, Horizon Europe, Solidarity Corps, Creative Europe, etc. There are around forty programmes and agencies and Turkey decided to be part of 13 EU programme and agencies in 2021-27 period. The EU should facilitate Turkey’s association with these programmes.

This is one of the reasons why I came to Brussels. I signed three agreements with Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth Mariya Gabriel on Horizon Europe, Erasmus + and the European Solidarity Corps.

Until now we have had 550,000 Turks who became part of Erasmus or European Solidarity Corps. Some of them spent two weeks in Germany in a factory. Some students went to Brugge to produce Belgium chocolate and some French students came to my hometown to take care of the health of some animals in our veterinary institution.

Every single year, under Erasmus +, we have 20,000 university students from Turkey going to other European universities. It is important to give the right image of Turkey and Turks. We have quite a lot of prejudices against Turkey, and this mentality has to change. Turks are an essential part of Europe. Turkey and Turks are part of the European history culture and civilisation. We might have different food preferences or different ways of praying, but these differences are everywhere. So even within the same country of Western or Northern Europe, it is possible to see differences. The differences are good. These differences are our richness. So I think this richness should be protected and we should enjoy this richness through these programmes.

These programmes are so important to build personal connections. For example, you send a student from Germany to Turkey and this student has a prototype Turkish image in her/his mind: “bloody aggressive Turks”. She/he thinks that döner kebab is the only Turkish meal. But thanks to Erasmus, she/he discovers that Turks are not different from others and there are other meals and delights. But also by studying, by living in another country, trying to learn another culture and language, the personality of a student is developing with broadened horizons.

For Turkish students, Erasmus + is a golden opportunity to discover the rest of Europe. The same goes for Horizon Europe: it is important for our academicians, our researchers, our universities, our laboratories to engage and exchange with the rest of Europe.

 

The link between sports and diplomacy is not often evident. Could you explain to our readers the importance of sports in Turkey-EU relations?

I would say it is vitally important because sometimes, some Turks do not realise how European they are until their favourite team plays in the European Championships.

Turkish teams playing in the European leagues in different branches, also constitute important components of our European identity and belonging to Europe.

Sports is also part of my diplomatic life. I am an amateur handball player. During my tenures here in Brussels twice, for six years, I played in a club – Evere Club.  During these years I discovered all parts of Belgium. My teammates were asking me different questions. One Flemish friend once asked me: “Faruk, you are a Muslim, your country is Muslim.  So when Turkey will join the EU, does this mean you will convert all of us into Islam and will we be circumcised?”. I replied, “we will continue to respect each other and our differences and we will be happier since we will belong to the same Union.”

This is an example of prejudice and even educated people may have these sorts of prejudices. But of course, after some time, everyone just realizes that there is not that much of difference among us. The religion or belief are subjects of privacy of individuals. Sports is an important means of communication and exchange, but also creates a common goal through which members of the team leave all the differences behind. It also helps eliminating the prejudice.

If I need to know better my counterparts in diplomacy, how committed, nervous or nice a person is, I invite them to play tennis with me. Tennis reflects all aspects of a person’s character. If I play tennis with someone for one hour, I can write a book about this person. Sports is important to connect you with other people. Thanks to tennis, I have also made many friends, wherever I worked like in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Belgium. I still have friends that I made in Turkey on vacation meeting at tennis courts. We became close friends and now they are my close friends in Belgium: in Antwerp, in different towns.

Through sports, the EU is trying to bring peoples of Europe together, because one dimension of the Erasmus + programme is also sports. Federations, sports clubs, universities, schools can develop projects.  I saw two successful Erasmus sports projects on tennis, implemented by the Turkish Tennis Federation. One is to expand tennis all over Turkey, not only in major towns, but also in villages and remote areas. Another project is to train professionals. We have very good tennis players, but this is not sufficient, you have to orient them, give them also psychological support and prepare them to become professional players.

To conclude, sports and diplomacy fit together. And I think sports diplomacy is quite influential and it really helps a lot in terms of overcoming prejudices, connecting peoples and nations, and creating a healthy and stable environment.