In our exclusive interview with Turkey’s foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu clearly admits that relations with Europe have been strained of late. And he explains who should shoulder the blame for the recent break up with Berlin.
The meeting with Mevlut Cavusoglu here in Rome took place during the Forum on dialogue between civil societies, which marked the desire of a European Union founder (Italy) and that of the eternal candidate (Turkey) to find a way of thawing the chilly EU-Turkey relations of recent years, an attitude which on the one hand we owe to Sarkozy’s erstwhile obsessions, and on the other can be pinned on the chaos that has ensued since the attempted coup in July 2016. The minister was keen to answer our questions, and provide his point of view on all of the more critical issues on the table, including the difficult relations with the Union, the standoff between Merkel and Erdogan, the Syrian peace process and his opinion of Trumpism, ending with what he thinks his country will be like in ten years’ time. In Europe we’re used to reading reports on Turkey that are influenced by our concern over the lack of fundamental rights such as freedom of the press and freedom of speech. We nevertheless think it useful to provide a voice to those who are trying to ferry the country beyond the emergency that followed the failed coup. We will not allow particularly thorny issues to cloud our judgement, though clearly these issues will have to be addressed once the country’s emergency is over, and it can finally announce a return to normality.
Mr. Minister, why is a country which had such a long-standing special relationship with the EU before embarking on accession talks, now heading towards a rift with the European Union? What has caused the deterioration in Turkey-EU relationship?
«Turkey-EU relations have always had “ups and downs”. What must be clear is that Turkey has always viewed its relationship with the EU and its accession process as a strategic priority for its foreign policy. Over the years, we have made sincere efforts with a view to obtaining full membership in the Union. We are still determined to finalize our accession process and expect the EU to reciprocate our efforts.
It is true that there is a lack of mutual trust in our relations with the EU. The EU’s lack of solidarity with the Turkish people following last year’s failed coup attempt gave us the impression that the EU does not really fully understand the magnitude and severity of the challenges Turkey has been facing. We feel that there are double standards in the EU’s criticism of Turkey, in particular when it comes to our fight against terrorism.
In order to re-establish a trusting relationship, the EU should honor its promises on major issues such as the modernization of the customs union, visa liberalization and the full disbursement of the financial help promised to cover the cost of Syrian refugees in Turkey. The EU should also stop politicizing the accession negotiations which should be purely technical, and lift political and artificial obstacles that have appeared for certain chapters.
We are looking forward to a normalized working relation with the EU in the period ahead».
Turkey’s relations with Germany have been fraught for months. The leaders of both countries have said that they are interested in good and trusting relations. But it takes two to tango. What would be the first steps each country ought to take in order to improve their relations?
«Germany is our main trading partner and a NATO ally. We enjoy close economic, political, cultural and social ties with the country. We have shared interests in many current regional and international issues. The large Turkish community in Germany constitutes a human bridge between our countries.
However, we recently had disagreements on important matters. One of them is related to cooperation in the fight against terrorism. Germany’s toleration for PKK and FETÖ activities has been unacceptable. Besides, the negative rhetoric used by political actors during the German election campaign has poisoned the atmosphere.
We value our deep-rooted and diverse bilateral relations. We believe that our disagreements have to be addressed through dialogue rather than negative public messages. After the German elections, our President, our Prime Minister and myself made positive remarks. We said that we are ready for normalization. Of course, we would like to see some concrete steps from the German side in the fight against terrorism; clear and effective measures against PKK and FETÖ would be a starting point.
We have initiated contacts in the last couple of weeks to address our differences and the mutual steps that need to be taken. Recently, my German counterpart visited Turkey to discuss our relationship. We keep dialogue flowing in a positive way and are ready to engage with the new German government as well».
Since 2016, Ankara has entered into a partnership with Russia and Iran in an attempt to find a solution to the Syrian conflict. What impact does this shift have on Turkey’s role in the region and how can the tripartite alliance work, considering that the countries involved have conflicting strategic objectives?
«As a neighboring State with a 911 km-long border with Syria, Turkey has a genuine desire to see a stable, prosperous and democratic Syria in the nearest possible future. One with its political unity and territorial integrity intact, and governed in accordance with the legitimate aspirations of its people.
In order to reach this goal, we have been cooperating with Russia on Syria since 2016, having first and foremost established a ceasefire in Aleppo, thereby securing the safe evacuation of 45,000 people. Next, we worked on broadening the scope of the ceasefire. Thanks to our joint efforts, we were able to declare a ceasefire for the whole of Syria on December 30, 2016. In order to reinforce the ceasefire, we promoted the Astana talks inviting Russia and Iran, another leading player on the ground. The collective goal of the three Astana guarantors is to ensure a reduction of violence on the ground and the introduction of confidence building measures between the conflicting parties as a way of preparing the ground for a proposal that might lead to a political solution.
The positive results of the Astana talks are widely acknowledged. A major achievement of this trilateral cooperation is the establishment of de-escalation zones which have significantly reduced violence on the ground. We plan to continue our cooperation with Russia and Iran in order to accelerate the Geneva process and reach a permanent political solution to the Syrian conflict».
During the Obama Presidency, disagreements over Syria widened between Ankara and Washington, but now with President Trump at the White House, have Turkish-US relations changed? And if so, in which way?
«Turkey and the US have been allies and strategic partners. We have deep-rooted relations, extensive cooperation on wide ranging issues, and a long history of solidarity and military partnership. This is a robust and resilient relationship.
It is true that we have had some differences and disappointments during the Obama Administration on critical issues. Our differences on Syria and later on counter-DAESH strategies began during the previous administration.
However, Turkey-US relations are time-tested. We have stood together in NATO, bilaterally or under the UN banner in the face of many challenges in the past. There is an ongoing cooperation on wide ranging and critical issues including Syria and Iraq as well as illegal migration and counter-terrorism. There is much more we can do together on these issues.
Our current concerns are related to issues such as the US support for PYD/YPG in Syria, and FETÖ. We have to cooperate more on these critical issues to find solutions.
As two long standing allies, we keep our channels of communication open. President Erdoğan and President Trump have a close and frank working relationship. They talk to each other frequently and discuss all critical issues. Both leaders recognize the vital importance of Turkey-US relations. They are determined to maintain and further develop our strategic partnership.
Our prime minister, Binali Yıldırım, recently visited the US and had frank discussions on all critical issues of our mutual agenda with Vice President Mike Pence. I also have frequent meetings and phone calls with my counterpart Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. We believe that we can overcome difficulties through dialogue, consultation and good-will».
Looking at the longer-term, ten years from now, what do you think your country will look like?
«Almost everyone agrees that Turkey is among the rising powers of the 21st century. Forecasts differ as to the future size of the economy, but everyone predicts sustained and significant growth in decades to come. Turkey is currently the 17th economy in the world and the 6th in Europe.
Major investment and infrastructure projects will soon be underway. We are investing in renewable energies. We are resolutely working to upgrade the technological base of our economy. We are also working toward fulfilling our sustainable development goals.
Our foreign policy is built on the main principle of “Peace at Home, Peace in the World”. We adopt an enterprising and humanitarian approach in conducting our foreign policy. Turkey is taking initiatives on regional and international issues to promote peaceful resolution of conflicts, especially through mediation.
Turkey will continue to be a strong and reliable partner for our friends and allies, including Italy. But primarily, we will continue to strengthen and enhance the fundamental tenets of our democratic, secular and social Republic governed by the rule of law. It is no coincidence then that Turkey should do so well in projections about the future.
The minister has promised to meet us again in a year’s time, to make a joint assessment of whether the efforts of the heirs of Ataturk are meeting his expectations…»