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EU Ambassador Christian Berger: We have a strong interest that Turkey is overcoming its economic problems, because we see Turkey as our economic partner

The EU-Turkey statement of March 2016 has become one of the main pillars of the EU’s migration strategy, essentially limiting the flow of migrants to the EU. The statement is accepted as a turning point in Europe’s crisis over refugees. On the third anniversary of its signing, we talked with Ambassador Christian Berger, the head of the EU Delegation to Turkey, the agreement’s impact on refugees and on Europe, Turkey-EU relations, EU relations with the Middle East including Israel and the rise of antisemitism in Europe.

How would you define the EU-Turkey deal of 2016 in its third anniversary? As a success? Does the outcome meet the expectations?
The Turkey-EU statement of March 2016 is trying to address two issues; to reduce the number of people -including illegal migrants- crossing to the islands, and also reduce the number of people dying in the sea. The numbers have dropped significantly. Both as the EU and Turkey, we believe that the statement is achieving its purpose. There is another component in that statement which is important. It provides a legal way of crossing to the EU. Under a resettlement program by now we have resettled some 20,000 people from Turkey to the EU member states. It also foresees a legal way of returning to Turkey illegal migrants who have reached the Greek islands. 

Did the EU fully comply with the agreement? Did the promised financial aid reach the refugees?
We agreed in 2016 on a 3 billion Euro support package for the refugees in Turkey and their host communities and we said in case there is a need we would have a second tranche. Therefore, there is a second round of 3 billion coming.  In the first round, we financed 72 projects. The money is gradually being paid out during the lifespan of the projects. For example, we have the so-called Kızılay card. That is a cash card on which every entitled refugee is receiving 125 TL per month. We build schools. It takes a while until the final payment is made but the kids are already in school. Therefore, what I prefer to look at is not how much money has been paid per se, but what is the result. We have built 200 schools and are building two hospitals. In Hatay we will have the groundbreaking ceremony in April, there will be another hospital built in Kilis. All over the country, we support health clinics, training centers for doctors and nurses, we are funding community centers where the Turkish community and Syrian refugees can meet. Plenty of physical manifestations of our support.

Visa Liberalisation was one of the components of the agreement…
In the statement of March 2016, it says that we will speed up the visa liberalisation process. We have agreed with the Turkish government that 72 benchmarks have to be met before the visa liberalisation can be granted. Of the 72, 67 have been ticked. There are 5 left to be handled. One was finished in December. We helped the government to procure and distribute biometric passports, which is happening. Then there are a couple of difficult ones. One is on the anti-terror law and there is still an issue regarding data protection. The relevant legislation needs to be updated. The Turkish foreign ministry has set up working groups to handle exactly those benchmarks. We are waiting for a report back from them and see where we are. The technical process of visa liberalization is continuing.

Did Turkey fully comply with the agreement?
In our view yes. Turkey takes back illegal migrants from the Greek islands. Turkey has suspended the bilateral readmission agreement with Greece for other bilateral reasons, but that concerns the land border, not the islands. In the case of the islands, the structure is working. There could be more returns but it also depends on the legal procedure in Greece. The EU member states  offered Greece assistance in providing case workers to look at the applications. I understand there are not enough case workers. And, whenever a case has been handled and a decision has been taken, you can always appeal to the Greek courts if your status is not accepted as a refugee and this can take quite some time. However, when the final decision is taken, then there is an agreement with Turkey and these people will be taken back. The system is functioning.

What is the current situation on refugee flows towards the EU? 
You have three main routes leading to Europe: the Western Mediterranean route, used mainly by Sub-Saharan Africans, coming via Morocco often to Spain. There we see a quite substantial increase in 2018; then there is the Central Mediterranean route coming from Libya and Tunisia to Malta and Italy. There was a decrease in 2018. You have mainly Sub-Saharan Africans and people from the Eastern parts of Africa. Then you have the Eastern Mediterranean route via Turkey to the Greek islands or via the land border. There is also movement via the Black Sea to Bulgaria and in the South to Cyprus. Overall however in 2018, the numbers have gone down; about150,000 people have arrived.

Where are they coming from?
Wherever you have an economic crisis, political issues… from Sub-Saharan Africa, from Eastern Africa. You have a big increase in Afghans. As for the Syrians, there is a fence now so fewer people are coming. In the final days of Daesh in Iraq, you had a high number of Iraqis coming from the Mosul area. However, that has also gone down. So the biggest number today are the Afghans.

We read about rescue boats at sea for weeks because there is a delay in letting ships dock. What is the problem there?
2-3 years ago the European Commission made a proposal to distribute arriving refugees throughout Europe. This was not accepted by some of the member states. They preferred other ways of helping, like providing financial support, logistic support. In the last half year or so, there was a big issue about boats arriving in Italy. The new government wanted to define ports that they can go, but that has not happened. There is also an issue with the way rescue operations are conducted at sea; who can operate at sea, how to do it, where to go. It is complicated and will take a while until this will be solved. In the meanwhile, member states continue taking in boats.

The reason may be the lack of a common migration policy…
The Commission has proposed an EU asylum policy and it is still being debated among member states. There are several components; where the refugees should go, what kind of assistance should be given and how to protect the EU’s  external borders.

How many illegal migrants were sent back to Turkey between 2016-2019? Is this number satisfactory?
By now the number is about2000. There could be more I guess, but there are legal procedures that you have to go through until a decision can be taken. As far as I understand from our Turkish colleagues, Turkey is willing to take more.
 What happens to the illegal migrants taken back by Turkey?
Turkey has bilateral agreements with third countries. So some of them returned to those countries. There are relocation centers across the country where illegal migrants are being  held until a decision has been taken. We have been providing financial assistance to make sure that those centers have the proper infrastructure and support.

In your opinion, what is the most promising EU funded project in Turkey?
Across the country, we are supporting agricultural and rural development activities from ecotourism to the right use of pesticides and herbicides, and to new irrigation methods. I must say from traveling in the country, from listening to the people, this must be one of the most effective and well-appreciated projects.

Do you think that the EU has responded well to the events following the Arab Spring or was it a missed opportunity for a more influential role in the region?
I happened to be working on the Middle East in Brussels when it started in 2011. At the time, it was seen as a way of promoting democracy and fundamental rights. I saw it as an attempt to redefine the relationship between the State and the individual. Many years later now, many people believe that the Arab Spring has turned to Arab Winter. I am less skeptical about it because a lot of important things happened in 2011, and I think the spirit is still there. If you look at the way this movement started in Tunisia in December 2010, it was for economic reasons. You had this desperate guy who burnt himself because he could not sell his goods in the streets. We tried to help those countries to immediately address their economic issues; we established Task Forces, for example in Egypt and Tunisia that were responsible to generate economic and financial support. Let us not forget, these countries are our immediate neighbors. It was in our interest to work with them and make sure that they were on a stable course. Could we have done more? Could others have done more? It is difficult to judge.

Now that the US plans to withdraw, what would be the role of the EU in Syria?
Our position has been the same from the beginning. We want to see a political solution that is achieved by the Syrians for themselves. We do not believe that a military intervention will resolve the conflict. We will have a conference on the 13th-14th of March in Brussels, which will be the third in a series. This year’s focus will be again on political aspects. On Syria, we have very close cooperation with Turkey because Turkey and the EU are trying to pursue the same objective; finding a political solution. Turkey is our closest ally in the Astana process.
Turkey is an important economic partner for the EU. How do you assess the ongoing economic situation?
President [of the European Commission Jean-Claude] Junker has coined an interesting phrase this summer. He said that we are interested in having a secure, democratic and stable Turkey, and he said this in an economic context as well. It is not in our interest to see the Turkish economy suffer. On the contrary, there is a very close economic interlink between Turkey and the EU. Look at the trade figures. More than 50% of foreign trade of Turkey is with the EU, more than 80% of the direct investment comes from the EU. Turkish companies are part of the supply, distribution and production chain of the EU. Turkey is part of the Customs Union. We want to do everything we can to help.  In addition, we are cooperating with Turkey on related foreign policy issues.  Here are two examples: one is the extraterritorial sanctions by the the US on Iran.  Many Turkish companies  have a stake in Iran. We have the same issue and are working with Turkey to avoid a negative economic impact. The second one is the additional US tariffs on steel and aluminum. A WTO case is going on in Geneva. Whatever the problems are, we have a strong interest that Turkey is overcoming those, because we see Turkey as our economic partner. 

What are the main challenges for advancing EU-Turkey relations forward?
There are political issues. The Customs Union is one example. According to the existing one, the Republic of Cyprus should have access to the Turkish market and should be able to use Turkish ports and airspace but this is not happening. So that has an impact. Another one was expressed in the Commission’s country report, is about the rule of law, fundamental rights.  Junker said on a number of occasions that he felt Turkey was moving away from the principles of the EU in the aftermath of the July 15th attempted coup and the measures Turkey was taking under the state of emergency. Member states then took a decision not to continue the work on the upgrading of the customs union. When Commissioner [for European Neighborhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations Johannes] Hahn visited Turkey in November, he said that the Commission still maintains the draft mandate for the negotiations and still thinks it is economically interesting for both sides to deepen the customs union. But no work has been done on the upgrading of the customs union. The existing customs union  will continue, but it does not cover agricultural products, services, public procurement.  Some important things are happening in Turkey now, which may have  an impact on this discussion. The Reform Action Group which comprises four key ministries; interior, foreign, justice, and finance, have come together in August and again in December to carry out reforms on the basis of European norms, standards and Council of Europe’s principles. We do not know yet exactly what the outcome of the reform efforts will be but I think it will have an impact on this discussion.

You have held various posts and lived 11 years in Israel and the area. How would you define EU-Israel relations?
We see Israel as an important partner in the neighborhood. We have strong relations and a well-functioning association agreement with Israel. We sometimes disagree on political issues regarding the Palestinians but this does not take away from the very close relationship that we have enjoyed over many years.  When I was the director for the Middle East, we negotiated a broad range of agreements including an aviation agreement, something similar we are negotiating now with Turkey. Our position on the Middle East Peace Process has been the same over many years: we think that there should be a two-state solution with the details agreed by both sides. For example we are not telling them where the border is, they need to negotiate it. Our point on Jerusalem is that nothing should prevent East Jerusalem from becoming the capital of the future Palestinian state. We are part of the Quartet and a European Union Special Representative deals with these issues. But so much has been written on this issue, so much has been said about it, so many ideas have been floated.  It is not easy.

The polls and the number of Jews migrating from EU countries, especially from France, show us that antisemitism pervades in Europe. What are the precautions the EU is planning or already implementing?
The Vienna-based European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights did a poll at the end of last year and the findings show that quite a high number of Jewish people want to leave or have thought of leaving. This is a concern. Junker said on the Holocaust [Remembrance] Day that “it is shameful to see this devil of antisemitism is rising again. There are many Jews who are concerned about their future in Europe. Europe should not allow people to be concerned about their future in Europe.” I think it was a very strong reminder that the issue has to be addressed. We have an antisemitism coordinator, there are a lot of high level working groups on various issues including security of the Jewish institutions, schools, etc. in Europe. You have had in a row two rotating presidencies, Austria and now Romania, that are promoting, for example, the definition of antisemitism. They have adopted it domestically and are pushing for Europe-wide adoption. The problem is recognized and the EU institutions are taking steps to address it.

A ban on kosher and halal meat went into effect on New Year’s Day in Belgium. Isn’t this in contradiction with EU’s right to freedom of religion?
Let’s start with the European point of view. There is an article in the fundamental rights convention of the EU that protects freedom of religion and also the manifestation and the practices of religion. So this is a fundamental principle in the convention. There is a council regulation from 2009 about how animals should be slaughtered. But it makes an exception for religious purposes as long as it takes place in a slaughterhouse. So from the European perspective, there is no problem. There was a case at the European court about halal meat and the court ruled that member states can take specific measures that can go beyond the measures of the council regulation but cannot go beyond article 10 of the convention of fundamental rights meaning on freedom of religion. So I think what the court is saying, as long as hygienic provisions are respected, some animal protection is respected and it takes place in a slaughterhouse then the religious slaughter of animals can take place. At the moment there is a court case launched by the Jewish community at the Belgian court on the issue and it is still pending. 

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