In an exclusive interview with Daily Sabah, EU Minister Ömer Çelik said Ankara's EU bid depends on developments that will take place in the EU in 2017, saying that the bloc did not keep its promises to Turkey regarding the migrant deal. He added that Turkey cannot be expected to prevent people from migrating to Europe if the migrant deal falls apart
Commenting on the future of the EU, he said that after the Brexit process, it was clear that the EU could not remain the same and that Turkey's EU bid and policies depend on developments that will take place in 2017, while stressing that regardless of the EU's decline or improvement, there will be new opportunities for Turkey to seize.
Regarding recent tensions between Turkey and the Netherlands, Minister Çelik said that the future of bilateral relations depends on the Netherlands, while underlining that Turkey expects an apology from the Netherlands for normalization to take place.Çelik said that Turkey will continue with new sanctions against the Dutch government and Turkey will respond to their threats with national honor. However, he assured Dutch investors and businesspeople, saying that they do not have any issues with their businesses and he emphasized that Turkey has no intention to punish businesspeople for the misconduct of their government.
Daily Sabah: How do you evaluate the recently strained relations between Turkey and the Netherlands?
Ömer Çelik: All of these happened right in front of the whole world. Using our democratic rights, we wanted to hold meetings to inform Turkish citizens living in the Netherlands about the upcoming referendum, as we did in many other countries in Europe. However, looking at what has transpired, we see that the Netherlands is acting against the European Convention on Human Rights, along with the Vienna Convention. Moreover, we witnessed the violent application of force in an EU member country where none thought it could happen. Unfortunately, despite centuries-long friendly relations, the government and prime minister of the Netherlands acted in a hostile way against Turkey.
If we had not known in which country the withdrawal of our foreign minister's travel permission and the shameful attitude towards our minister of family and social policies took place, we would have guessed it was North Korea, not a member of the EU. Turkey will retaliate diplomatically within the boundaries of law.
DS: Could relations between the two countries normalize under these conditions?
ÖÇ: The future of our relations with the Netherlands depends on what they are going to do. Detainment of our consul and the acts towards our minister of family and social policies are a violation of international law. First, they have to apologize to Turkey for normalization to take place.
New visuals about the events have been revealed. One shows that armed forces were given permission to shoot the bodyguards of our minister, which clearly is an act of terror. This approach doesn't suit a democratic country. The Rutte government acted in a manner that simultaneously violated the European Convention on Human Rights and the Vienna Convention, while sabotaging relations between Turkey and the Netherlands. It is definitely an act against Turkey's national honor. Therefore, it is not possible to have a dialogue with the Netherlands unless they take the initiative.
DS: Turkey sent diplomatic notes to the Netherlands. Will there be any economic sanctions against the Netherlands? What we have done was a reaction towards their government and the applications that were conducted by their state. We don't have any issues with their businesses, NGOs and their people. Therefore, we cannot punish them for the misconduct of their government. We are acting within the boundaries of law. We won't take any measures against the aforementioned groups in any way.
Nevertheless, we will continue on new sanctions against the Dutch government, and we will respond to their threats against our national honor. We are acting in a rational manner, opposite to what some opposition party leaders suggest. We are taking the long-term interest of our country into consideration as well.
DS: After the escalating tensions, there were calls for calm by EU member countries. We can claim that it makes sense, as the Netherlands is an EU member. However, the U.S. and Russia have also made this call. What may be their reasons?
ÖÇ: Other countries want to maintain their relations with both countries, not to engage in the crisis. However, I believe it should be different for the EU. I believe that the EU has to act in accordance with the European Convention on Human Rights first and foremost. They keep reminding us about the convention, and in turn we remind them about it. The Dutch government has violated the rights to convene, protest, travel, along with diplomatic immunity. An EU official said that the EU is proud of its rights and freedoms. These rights and freedoms were violated by the Dutch government. Therefore, we can't accept the calls for calm.
The Netherlands is trying to make this an issue of the EU, so that they will not be responsible for their actions. Similar conduct was carried out by Austria previously, as well. They tried to ban Turkish ministers by proposing a general law to the EU, which eventually was rejected. The EU indicated that these were decisions to be made by individual countries.
On the other hand, we believe a strong and intact EU that acts in accordance with political values is crucial for our national interest, along with the interest of our diaspora in the EU countries. However, such events like the ones that took place in the Netherlands are dangerous for all. As you know, far-right parties are trying to escalate tensions further and sever relations between countries.
DS: How do you evaluate the result of the election in the Netherlands, which took place last week?
To evaluate the Dutch elections, we must look at both the statistics and the political atmosphere. The statistics show that the Dutch prime minister's party won the elections. However, we witnessed racist and Islamophobic rhetoric also being used by Prime Minister Rutte. Therefore, even if Rutte won statistically, we see that Wilders has won politically.
In previous years, only a fraction of the far-right movements' rhetoric could be observed in mainstream politics; however, we are observing the opposite now as racist and fascistic rhetoric of those like Wilders are increasingly becoming a part of mainstream politics.
DS: Beside the Netherlands, there are tensions with Germany and Austria. Considering all of these, does Turkey still aim to become a full member of the EU?
This is a question I keep hearing in Europe. I ask them which EU they are talking about. If it is the EU that acts in accordance with political values, we want to be a part of it; however, if it is the EU imagined by Wilders, Le Pen or Rutte, we won't be a part of it, even if we were to be allowed without any conditions.
We will see which kind of EU is to emerge in 2017. After the Brexit process, it was clear that the EU can't stay the same. Nevertheless, regardless of the EU's decline or improvement, I believe there will be new opportunities for Turkey to seize. We will continue to closely follow and establish Turkey's position rationally.
DS: So, Turkey's EU bid and policies depend on developments that take place in 2017?
Yes, it depends on the transformation of the EU this year. Regarding this as a crisis between Turkey and the EU is not a comprehensive approach. When you look at the bigger picture, you see that there is an administrative crisis in the EU. If the EU survives this crisis by strengthening its political values, Turkey will reconsolidate its position as a candidate for full membership. However, if the opposite is the case and the EU becomes an increasingly exclusive organization, it won't be attractive for Turkey. Regardless of what happens, one thing remains true: There will always be a relation between Turkey and Europe. Even though it seems that there are only crises between Turkey and EU countries, in terms of our national interest, we actually have gained much from many of the countries. We still need to evaluate what is going to happen and act accordingly.
DS: Will the agreement between Turkey and EU, which includes articles on the refugee crisis and visa-free travel, come to an end?
Firstly, I have to say that discussions on abolition of this agreement are independent of what happened with the Netherlands. There were many articles in the agreement: opening new chapters for accession, 3 billion euros for aiding refugees, voluntary relocation of refugees, visa-free travel and so on. This agreement has become a burden for Turkey, as the EU is not fulfilling its commitment. For instance, around 700 million euros of financial aid was distributed in the field and the rest is nowhere to be found.
Turkey now hosts more than 3 million people who fled the war. To underscore the magnitude, this figure is more than half of the population of EU member Slovakia; 800,000 of these are children and more than 400,000 of them are receiving an education. The number of refugee children receiving an education in Turkey is equal to the number of students in Finland. Turkey is trying to overcome supranational issues by itself.
When talking to my European counterparts, I always say that we are doing what we are doing for humanitarian reasons. However, I add that Turkey should not be treated as a collection of refugee camps. At this point, we can't see a reason to maintain this agreement.
DS: With the said agreement, immigrants were not allowed to go to Europe either by sea or land. Will immigrants be allowed to pass to Europe by sea or land if this agreement is abolished?
In May 2015, 7,000 people per day were trying to cross the Aegean Sea. With Turkey's involvement, these numbers shrank to 20-30. What made us happy is that there are no longer deaths on the sea. The crucial efforts of our coast guards and police force are saving the lives of many. However, as you may have seen, many other countries are intentionally sinking the boats of refugees and leaving them for dead.If the agreement is abolished, we would return to the previous conditions. If we see a humanitarian crisis, we will intervene, of course. We will do whatever we can to prevent the deaths of people on sea or on land. However, we won't have official responsibility for preventing people from migrating to Europe.
When the EU signs similar agreements with countries like Libya, they know that the agreement will not come into full effect, at least practically, as these countries lack the capacity of the Turkish coast guard. Therefore, they will first have to increase the capacities of the coast guards of those countries and then act. This won't happen. People are migrating from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. As a result of instability in northern Africa, people are migrating to other countries through the Mediterranean. In this sense, we actually have saved Europe from a tremendous humanitarian and political crisis.
DS: You have called for a summit to discuss future relations of Turkey and the EU after the referendum in Turkey. Do you still have hope for such a summit after the tensions with several individual EU countries?
I believe that if we want to progress, we need a summit that should be spearheaded by leaders of countries. Donald Tusk said that they foresee such a summit. We were planning to hold it in the first half of the year; however, we have an upcoming referendum, along with the current tensions. On the other hand, the summit itself should not be an end; for concrete results, there should be some sort of agenda. Regardless, we will have a summit. Turkey has always been a part of Europe and will continue to be so.
Meanwhile, 2017 is crucial for all; there are elections in many EU countries and the political map of Europe will be redefined. President of the European Commission Juncker brought a blank paper to the 60th anniversary summit in Rome, which was representative of the EU's future. There are talks about a multi-speed Europe. While the Brexit process is about to start in the following days, the Customs Union agreement is to be updated. Considering all of these, I foresee that new pages will be opened in Turkey's relations with the EU and Europe and that positions will be consolidated by the end 2017.
DS: Lastly, what is your take on the Court of Justice of the European Union's (CJEU) decision that employers can ban the hijab in their workplaces?
If we hadn't known it was the CJEU, we would have mistaken it for Feb. 28 in Turkey. This decision reminds us of the break from democracy, justice and equity. This decision came out due to disagreement; an employer laid off a couple of employees, and the employees took the case to the court. The Belgian Supreme Court asks how to implement this directive to the CJEU and the CJEU comes up with a ruling case. However, this is directly against two articles of the European Convention on Human Rights: Article 9 and Article 14, which are about freedom of religion and discrimination. We believe that the CJEU was also affected by rising Islamophobia in Europe.
This decision of the CJEU shows the necessity to promote sensitivity in upholding the human rights convention in Europe. This task falls to all European institutions, including the Council of Europe. Those who react against minimal violations of European Convention on Human Rights should take the initiative against this decision, which infringes Article 9 and 14. This decision is clearly Islamophobic.
This decision has become a precedent for banning all religious symbols. As this decision is open to interpretation, anything can become a religious symbol and cause employees to be laid off. On the other hand, I always say that Islamophobia is a dangerous development, but it also serves as a cover for other ideologies. If you examine those who are Islamophobic, you will see that most of the time they are also anti-Semites. Moreover, these people are also Europhobic and pose a threat against the EU's basic principles. For this reason, visionary elements and people of the EU should take the initiative in this issue. Even though it may just seem like a crisis between Turkey and the EU or a crisis of Islamophobia, it is much bigger. This is an internal conflict of the EU, and it is between libertarians and supporters of the far-right movements. This is all about the basic tenets of the EU. Those who don't act when Turkey and Islam is being targeted will see that far-right movements and racists will occupy all political spaces and will eventually cause a regression in hard-earned freedoms and rights.