A referendum on the new Cyprus constitution by the end of March will be successful, and the reunification of the country will open new opportunities for Turkey’s EU integration, the Minister of European Affairs of Turkey, Volkan Bozkır, told EurActiv in an exclusive interview.
You are in Brussels only days after the EU-Turkey summit [this interview took place on 4 December, and the summit took place on 29 November]. I assume that you are following up on its decisions?
Indeed, and there are two reasons for the visit. I was reappointed European Affairs minister, and I am renewing my meetings with my counterparts in Brussels. And as you say, last Sunday’s summit was a very important one. It was the first time ever for a summit in such a format. A lot of issues were discussed, a lot of plans were made for the future. I found it appropriate to come immediately and talk to Commissioners, to relevant officials, so we can explain our interpretations of the summit results.
So what is your interpretation?
The summit changed the paradigm of EU-Turkish relations. Cards were redistributed again. They were redistributed for a good purpose, to start a new style in our relations. Both sides will make efforts to move forward, and this is called re-energising EU-Turkey relations.
For this, we have a lot of work to do in Turkey. After the elections, we have a stable situation. The government has a huge majority behind and votes will swiftly pass through parliament.
We will continue with a lot of reforms. Next week, we will announce [plans for] the first 100 days [of the new Turkish government who took office officially on 30 November].
What we have achieved here with my visit is that we decided on several platforms that will be operational from January. First of all, we will have the high-level energy meeting. This format was created last March, but the first meeting will take place in January, most probably. Then we will discuss the existing potentials. Turkey is investing $125 billion in the energy field until the end of 2030.
The biggest project being TANAP [the Turkish section of the Southern Gas Corridor]?
Not only TANAP. Three are nuclear power stations, renewable energy, solar power stations, hydraulic. All together, it’s a huge plan. Last weeks’ events [the downing of the Russian jet] makes it necessary that both sides use this platform, [including] for difficulties which may arise in our region from new developments.
So in January, as I discussed with energy Commissioner Cañete, this meeting will take place most probably in January in Istanbul.
The second is the high-level economic dialogue. I met with [economic and financial affairs Commissioner] Pierre Moscovici, and we decided on having high-level meetings. Turkey is a good example, because when there was an economic crisis in Europe and in the US, Turkey maintained its economic stability, and even improved its own economic figures.
The other issue was the political dialogue. We will intensify and increase our political dialogue. Our foreign minister [Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu] will attend the Foreign Affairs Council on 14 December and developments of relevance for EU and Turkey for our region will be discussed there. And a quadrilateral meeting with the High Representative [Federica Mogherini], Enlargement Commissioner [Johannes Hahn], myself and the foreign minister [representing the Dutch EU presidency] will take place in January as well.
Other than that, we are discussing with Commissioner Hahn the opening of chapters. We are opening Chapter 17 [Economic and Monetary Policy, see full list of chapters], on 14 December, and then there are five more chapters. Those are chapters 23 and 24, on External Relations 31, on Energy and on Education 26. There are good expectations, once the political obstacles are removed, to move forward.
How much of this is related to the Cyprus situation?
All of them are related. But I will come back to the Cyprus issue later.
So the other issue was the Customs Union. We are upgrading it with the addition of agriculture, service, and public procurement. In the second half of next year these negotiations will start. We are talking about a trade that is now 150 billion, to go up at 300 billion. I think this is a huge element of interest.
All these meetings will lead to a second EU-Turkey summit next year. And instead of having only family photos, we will have also substance.
And there will be two EU-Turkey summits in 2016?
Yes, two summits every year.
Has the date of the first meeting been decided yet?
Not yet. In Turkey, we will have a ministerial council on Monday [7 December], and the next day the Prime Minister [Ahmet Davutoğlu] is convening another group to discuss this, and what measures Turkey is taking vis-a-vis the refugee difficulties and the promises both sides made at the EU-Tukey summit. On Wednesday [10 December), we are announcing the reforms, next Monday (14 December) the chapter will be opened. And on the 17th, like-minded countries plus the Commission, have invited the Prime Minister to come again to Brussels. [Germany, Belgium, Luxemburg, France, the Netherlands, Sweden are in a group called the "Like-Minded Countries" with whom Turkey wants to put in place a permanent relocation mechanism].
So your prime minister will be here again on the first day of the December EU summit.
So it’s a huge momentum for a very short time?
Exactly. Regarding Cyprus which you have mentioned, I think the hopes to solve the Cyprus problem are very high now. A referendum will take place by the end of March.
One referendum or two? Because in 2004 there were two referendums, and the Turkish Cypriots voted in favour, while the Republic of Cyprus voted against.
Perhaps there will be two. But this time, I think it will be a positive one.
But has this been agreed?
Not yet. But I’m sure this would be a good message to the world, that a 50-year-old problem has been solved. It would be good for the region, with a lot of advantages, cooperation, and of course for removing difficulties Turkey is facing with the EU.
It’s not often that we see an acceleration of history.
Let’s see. I’m hopeful. I think there is reason to be hopeful. Because in the Annan plan [by then UN Secretary General Kofi Annan the two sides didn’t agree. And then Annan intervened with his plan, which was taken to a referendum. Now the two sides are agreeing on a constitution, and it will be presented to a referendum. That’s a big difference compared to the previous case.
So the referendum will be about the new constitution?
Yes, and about the new state.
But will the two communities have the time to learn what’s in this constitution?
They are announcing every step that is being agreed, so it won’t come today and the referendum being announced tomorrow. It has been a very transparent procedure until now. Most of the issues have been shared with the public opinion.
Regarding the visa issue, what was said at the summit is that if everything goes according to plan, there will be no visas for Turkish nationals from October 2016?
Well this was actually decided two years ago, when we signed the readmission agreement. There was already an agreement for visas to be eliminated from 2017. What was decided now was to bring this date from 2017 to October 2016.
In March, the Commission will make its second report on its 72 expectations. In summer, as a trial, we will make the implementation of the readmission agreement, and in October Turkish citizens will enter into the Schengen area without a visa.
We will re-shape the passports. We already have biometric passports for many years now, but the fingerprint would be added to make it more secure. And we will pass the personal data protection law, and many other technical type of things. We don’t have any difficulty on this.
But if I can jump from the very technical to the very political, don’t you think that this is speeding up of things happens out of necessity?
That is true. It may be so. But instead of moving into the reasoning, we are looking into the result. The atmosphere at the summit was I think very positive. It was not about only solving the migrant crisis, but almost all leaders made very positive statements about this relation to go further.
So whatever the reason is, we have captured this moment in our relations. And we will build on this.
The last time we talked, you announced a communication strategy, which is needed both externally and internally to promote Turkey’s EU path. Do you plan to continue on this track, given the fact that most Turks don’t believe in EU accession, and many leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, don’t see Turkey as a future member of the Union?
But this is old news, what you are saying. It doesn’t reflect today’s situation. If you ask those questions now, you will get different answers. All the three papers, one was the Turkey’s EU strategy, that is valid. Turkey’s communications strategy is valid. And we are adapting the third paper, the action plan for adaptation to the EU acquis.
But as they say, the European Union is a moving target. What kind of EU are you going to join?
It doesn’t matter. For us the standards and values of the EU are important.
Speaking about standards and values, the first thing that comes to mind is the freedom of press. Turkey is criticised not only in the Commission’s reports. World news frequently mention Turkish journalists being jailed, and media outlets being raided by the police. How about that?
If anyone believes there is no press freedom in Turkey, it wouldn’t be fair. In Turkey we have 5 million newspaper distributed [per day], 1,500 columnists, almost 300 TV channels, and we have every day 11 million tweets and 36 million people on the Internet. And every night on national channels you can see that every issue is discussed from 8 o’clock in the evening until the morning, any view is expressed and nothing prevents this from happening.
There may be criticism, and if criticism is correct, we will of course take this into consideration. But if a person is a journalist, this doesn’t give immunity from legal procedures. If a journalist is facing a legal procedure because of his or her writings, there is a problem. But if it is because of illegal things they have done, not related to their writing, then any country has all the right to press charges.
In many cases, CPJ and other credible journalistic organisation accuse Turkey of putting journalists to jail. But these journalists are in jail because of having bombed a police station, or they (may) have killed a policeman, or they have attacked a market, or [because they] kidnapped somebody. And we are giving information that it isn’t because of their writings that they are in jail.
And we are reforming our judiciary system. The biggest reform will take place very soon, and it will be made according to the EU acquis communautaire.
I know you are not the foreign minister, but I will still ask you about Turkey’s relations with its neighbours. A couple of years ago, your country said it was pursuing a “zero problem” policy with its neighbours. Those times are gone, and Turkey has problems with most of its neighbours. How would you comment?
Let me correct your wording. Having zero problems with the neighbours is a good thing. We never changed this policy, and have no intention to change it. We have 13 neighbours. When you say “most”, it doesn’t correspond to reality. With Greece we have the best relations, ever.
Yes, but I am aware of the statements by the Greek PM that Turkey is lucky that Greece is not so mercurial every time Turkish warplanes violated its airspace. He said this following the downing of the Russian jet.
He [Alexis Tsipras] was in Turkey. The [most] friendly support to Greece is coming from Turkey. He deleted that tweet, which didn’t really reflect his views. At the summit, he was very positive. Turkey and Greece have the best relations ever, when you look at decades of relations.
With Bulgaria we have very good relations. With Romania we have very good relations. With Moldova we have very good relations. With Ukraine we have very good relations. With Russia, we had the best relations in 300 years. I’ll come to the current day. With Georgia we have good relations. With Azerbaijan we have good relations. With Armenia we are trying to have good relations. With Iran we have good relations. With Iraq we have good relations. With Syria we have no relations. Cyprus, we are trying to solve. So when you said you have bad relations with most of them, it’s wrong.
But also in the wider neighborhood, your relations with Israel have greatly deteriorated…
But neigbours are neighbours. Only Syria is an exception. With Russia, until one week ago, we had very good relations. Now, what happened happened. Both sides must look at the situation in calm manner, look at the benefits of this good relation, and see how precious it is to have this good relation. We are not exaggerating or provoking anything. We have been calling on Russia to come back to the good relations. And we are waiting that the negative psychology in Russia will in time disappear. Our foreign ministers met yesterday [4 December in Vienna]. I think it was good, they talked for an hour or so, they expressed their feelings, registered their views, and I think this is one of the good elements we had.
We are trying to come back to a good relation period. And we hope that Russia will join us in that.