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16th Feb 2019

'EU has lost its leverage on Turkey', ambassador says

Flush with post-election self-confidence, the Turkish administration has said it will no longer take EU recommendations into account in its internal reforms.

Turkey's ambassador to the EU, Selim Kuneralp, told EUobserver in an interview on Friday (17 June) that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's top post-election priority is to draft a "modern, liberal" constitution. But due to the breakdown in EU entry talks, Brussels will not play a big role in the project.

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  • Kuneralp (r) hands over his EU diplomatic credentials during happier days in January 2010 (Photo: ec.europa.eu)

"The European Commission's recommendations will be taken on board to the extent that they reflect universal norms. Take the death penalty [which Turkey abolished in 2004]. Whether or not you want to join the EU, it's a good thing to abolish the death penalty. But in the absence of any clear perspective of accession, there's no reason why Turkey should align its legislation toward narrow EU standards. To put it simply, the EU has lost its leverage on Turkey."

One EU concern is that Erdogan will increase presidential powers and run for president in 2014, taking Turkey in an authoritarian direction. But the EU would have little say if the scenario came to be.

"Even if we were to shift to a presidential-style system, there is at least one European country that already has such a constitution. And I am not aware of anyone in the EU telling France it doesn't meet European standards," Kuneralp explained.

Turkey accession talks effectively halted in late 2010 when the commission opted not to open the competition chapter.

The ambassador said the move left "a bitter taste in the mouth" and that Turkey has no confidence in EU intentions to revive the process: "People in Ankara are fed up. They made all sorts of attempts to satisfy the commission. But the more material we gave them, the more they demanded."

He predicted the EU will survive its debt crisis. But he described the union as being debilitated by its financial problems and as lacking strategic vision on foreign policy.

With EU countries at the weekend scrambling to help Greece, an opponent of Turkish accession, to avoid bankruptcy, the ambassador noted: "The EU is not in a position to put additional pressure on Greece ... to say to Greece that it spends 4.1 percent of its GNP on defence, but that if Turkey was a member of the EU, it could cease to treat Turkey as a potential threat."

He predicted that internal divisions will hamper EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton's recent bid to restart Middle East peace talks.

Looking back at Israel's assault on the Gaza flotilla last year, he noted that out of seven EU countries in the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, some voted against a flotilla resolution, some voted in favour and others abstained.

"I am sure that if there had been a fourth option, some of the member states would have taken it," he said. "The European Union has to adopt a common position on the Middle East if it wants to project its influence as the EU instead of as individual member states."

'Source of inspiration'

In terms of Turkish foreign policy, Ankara is unmoved by Western concerns that it is too close to Iran. "It's easy if someone is sitting in Washington to pontificate about Iran as a threat. But Iran is our neighbour ... we have to talk to Iran and we have to trade with Iran," Kuneralp said.

On Syria, he noted that Turkey shares the EU line that Damascus must make pro-democratic reforms. But he declined to back the EU's draft UN Security Council [UNSC] resolution condemning killings and urging an arms embargo.

"The [Turkish] prime minister has said the international community would need to get involved if the massacres in Syria continue ... [But] we have not been consulted on any possible UNSC resolution and I cannot comment on which course of action we would prefer."

The ambassador said Turkey, an Islamic country, is a "source of inspiration" to Muslims in the region due to its robust democracy and economic growth.

He said the thousands of Syrian refugees massing in southeast Turkey are unlikely to become a base for the Syrian opposition, however: "They are not the kind of people you would expect to become actively involved in opposition. They are mostly just farmers fleeing government action."

Amid reports that local Turks are bringing food and blankets to the refugee camps, in contrast to Italian hostility to north African migrants, Kuneralp added: "It is not surprising that Turkish people feel more concerned than Italians in Lampedusa. Syrians are our immediate neighbours. There are close links - in some cases family ties - between the peoples of southern Turkey and northern Syria. There is a natural empathy between them."

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