OFFICIALS FROM THE TURKISH GOVERNMENT have arrived in Helsinki to participate in a seminar at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs, entitled ‘EU-Turkey Relations in Geopolitical Context’, scheduled to take place tomorrow afternoon.
One of these officials is Faruk Kaymakcı, the Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs and EU director ambassador for Turkey. He hopes that the event can be used to shine a light on current EU-Turkey relations and jumpstart accession talks.
Turkey’s planned accession to full EU membership has stalled since the 2016 coup attempt and the Turkish government’s subsequent response, which was widely condemned as “authoritarian” in European capitals.
Whilst there has been little sign of the distance between Ankara and Brussels narrowing over the three years since, Kaymakçı hopes that Finland’s assumption of the EU Presidency later this year will provide an opportunity for Turkey to reestablish ties and accelerate the accession process.
In an exclusive interview with the Helsinki Times, we caught up with him in the Turkish embassy in Ullanlinna to discuss migration, security, and Turkey’s future relations with Finland and the European Union.
First off, can you please explain the purpose of your visit to Helsinki this week?
With Finland taking the EU presidency in the second half of 2019, now is an ideal time to discuss both bilateral and Turkish-EU relations with our Finnish friends.
Helsinki itself is a very important city to Turkey; it was here where we were first recognised as a candidate country for EU membership back in 1999.
We’re hoping that the Finnish presidency can enable that ‘Helsinki spirit’ once again and put Turkey firmly on the track towards EU membership once again.
So you’re hoping to develop closer ties with Finland as they assume the EU presidency?
Of course. We already enjoy an excellent relationship with Finland and wish to develop this even further in the year ahead.
Our foreign minister is extremely interested in paying a visit to Finland this year, as is our president. We also hope to increase trade flows between Turkey and Finland, which are currently valued at over €1.3 billion per year, and to strengthen education links, an area where Finland is an excellent role model. As head of Turkey’s ERASMUS programme, I’d love to see more Finnish students in Turkey, and more Turkish students in Finland this year.
Back in 2017 when Finland celebrated its 100th anniversary of independence, we changed the name of a street in Ankara to commemorate the occasion. It would be a pleasure to see Helsinki do the same during our 100-year anniversary in 2023. Perhaps an ‘Ataturk Park’ or ‘Ataturk Road’. Ataturk was an important figure who placed Turkey on the path towards Westernization, and such a gesture would send a powerful message about the relationship between our two countries.
Let’s talk about EU membership plans. The events of the last couple of years have brought accession talks to a virtual standstill, and Turkey wasn’t included in the EU’s recently-released expansion plans. What message do you hope to send to the EU this week and in the year ahead?
Nobody can deny that the last couple of years have been difficult for Turkey. The failed coup attempt of the 15th July 2016 did a lot to disrupt accession talks and complicate our international relations. Prior to the coup, accession talks were accelerating, with three Turkey-EU summits taking place over five months in 2015/16.
Unfortunately, Turkey did not feel that it received the necessary support on that evening when our democracy was attacked. This naturally affected confidence and trust between us and the EU. The emergency measures we were forced to put into place, which were in line with international law, by the way, were not popular with the EU.
This is all behind us now. Our state of emergency has been lifted and we’ve gotten our elections out of the way. The backbone of our relationship with the EU is the accession process and we’d like to show that we’re getting Turkey ready for EU membership.
Will Turkey be making any concrete steps towards filling the Copenhagen Criteria this year in order to become eligible for membership?
Absolutely. The trauma of 15th July is behind us and our elections are completed. The next four years will be entirely about reform and progress. What we achieved in the years following Helsinki 1999 can be repeated and done even better.
We are already close to fulfilling the 72 benchmarks required for visa-liberalization, which would give Turkish citizens visa-free travel access to Schengen. With only 6 benchmarks left to complete, we aim to have achieved this in 2019.
We are reforming our judicial system with consultation from the Council of Europe and taking steps to adhere to the ECHR. We’re also introducing legislation aimed at curbing corruption and changing the way political parties can be financed.
Those six remaining benchmarks are encouraging Turkey to do more to reform.
One particularly sensitive issue is the EU-Turkey migration pact. Will this be used to advance accession talks in the year ahead?
The migration crisis of 2015/16 demonstrated how important Turkey is to Europe. In the immediate aftermath of the crisis, accession talks accelerated when Europe realised that Turkey is a vital ally and a European partner.
We contained the crisis with the 1-1 system, which ensured that refugees and migrants trying to enter the EU illegally would be brought back to Turkey. The EU has promised to do more to take some of the 4.7 million foreigners claiming asylum in Turkey, but so far this has not materialised.
Turkey is hosting millions of people on behalf of Europe, 3.7 million of which are Syrian. We are also hosting large groups of people from Morocco, Iran, Iraq, Nigeria, and elsewhere. In many ways, Turkey is shouldering Europe’s burden on its own and we’d like to see more cooperation in this area [with the EU].
Finland takes something like 600 refugees a year while we have millions. Imagine if all of these people were permitted to enter Europe. We are trying our best to manage migration flows into Europe and to enhance security with our military presence in Iraq and Syria. Without our boots on the ground Europe would be much less safe than it is now.
I would say when Turkey defends its own border it is defending the borders of Europe and of NATO, and that this should be acknowledged as such in future talks.
And what of Turkey’s economy, which entered recession this year following a highly turbulent few months? What would you say to European companies wary of doing business in Turkey?
Our recent economic difficulties are related to many factors. One was the coup attempt of 2016. Another has been the wars going on just outside our borders, which has reduced trade with some of our largest economic partners such as Iraq. Another is the burden of hosting millions of refugees, which the Turkish government has spent $37 billion managing to date.
In spite of this, the Turkish economy is a resilient economy. We are a strong manufacturing economy and our trade flow of goods has continued throughout this period. We remain the EU’s fifth-largest trading partner.
I would say that we are currently implementing a reform package which will reduce inflation and return Turkey to the annual growth rates of 5-6% we saw previously. I would also emphasise the importance of reviving discussions with the EU over updating our customs union, which has facilitated over €2.3 trillion euros in trade since its inception.
And finally, what do you hope to see from Finland during their EU presidency?
We hope we can revitalize that Helsinki spirit once again and that Finland can help give priority to the accession process. In 1999 we saw that Turkey is destined to join the EU, and the Turkish government will be implementing large-scale reforms much in the same way that we did back then.
During Finland presidency we aim to have fulfilled the benchmarks required for visa liberalization and to have held a Turkey-EU summit to further discuss accession. Finland will also be hosting a number of informal meetings with EU ministers on a wide range of matters such as transport and energy.
We hope that as a candidate country, we can be invited to take part in these meetings, to prepare us for our future membership and to motivate us to reform.
Adam Oliver Smith – HT (@HelsinkiTimes)
Image Credit: Helsinki Times