Christian Berger, the head of the European Union delegation to Turkey, stressed in an exclusive interview with Daily Sabah that there are positive developments regarding Turkey's relation with the EU.
The EU ambassador said some steps have been taken recently and they will to work together with Turkey on taking relations to the next level. Berger highlighted that Tukey's tensions with some individual EU states in recent years were left behind.
He underlined that the developments such as the appointment of ambassadors to the Netherlands and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's upcoming visit to Germany will have positive impact on overall EU ties.
As Turkey's EU Reform Action Group (RAG) recently conveyed a strong message that Ankara is ready to revive its relations with the EU and implement some new reforms, Berger highlighted that now the sides need to work together over various issues.
With an aim of engaging in discussions with Ankara, a series of meetings and visits are planned at the ministerial and commissioners' level, Berger said, adding that Violeta Bulc, the European commissioner for transport, will come for the opening of the third airport in Istanbul.
Moving forward, Berger stressed that considering the risk of a humanitarian catastrophe in relation to the recent developments in Syria's Idlib, the EU holds the same position as Turkey and is in favor of a political solution.
He added that Ankara's diplomatic efforts to contribute to the resolution of the crisis are also supported.
Berger also underlined that the EU will continue its support to Turkey in terms of meeting the needs of Syrian refugees that take shelter in the country.
Reminding readers that the European Commission will provide a renewed 3 billion euros, the EU envoy said that officials are working on projects to deliver this money.
EU wants Turkey to be on European path
Turkey's strained ties with some individual member states and the sluggishness of EU negotiations had made many people believe that Turkey has completely lost its interest in the EU. Yet, with a recent move Ankara indicated that it is determined to boost ties with the EU and is ready to take the necessary steps.
The EU envoy highlighted that the recent moves to improve ties with countries such as the Netherlands and Germany might also contribute to the enhancing of ties.
Berger underlined that there were tensions with both the EU and individual member states but that is over with now.
"A lot of work has been done to improve bilateral relationships with Germany, the Netherlands and with Greece. We have seen strong engagement, good conversations, and global alignment in the last months and weeks," he stressed.
"There is a new Dutch ambassador coming soon and there is a Turkish ambassador going there. The Turkish president will go to Berlin. These very important bilateral engagements will obviously have a positive impact on the EU level," Berger said.
"Decisions on the EU level depend also on individual member states. Good neighborly relations, working on bilateral relationships are ultimately also very beneficial for the overall Turkey-EU relationship," he added.
Last month, Turkey and the Netherlands decided to normalize bilateral relations and have restored full formal diplomatic ties. The decision was reached in a phone call between Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu and his Dutch counterpart Stef Blok. A diplomatic row between the NATO allies previously broke out in March 2017, when the Netherlands barred government ministers from campaigning among the Turkish diaspora in the Netherlands.
Şaban Dişli, a former Justice and Development Party (AK Party) deputy, has become Turkey's new ambassador to The Hague. While the Netherlands appointed Marjanne de Kwaasteniet as their ambassador to Turkey. Following the reappointment of the ambassadors with Netherlands, a substantial recovery in ties is expected.
There have been positive signals as well for a thawing in relations with Germany. Following the U.S.' decision to impose sanctions over Turkey, some European countries, including Germany, voiced support for Ankara, a move which had brought the sides closer.
Furthermore, the international challenges such as the ongoing Syrian crisis have been calling on sides to leave previous tensions behind and cooperate.
In his recent visit to Turkey, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas stressed that Germany has a clear will to continue working on improving ties. Erdoğan's visit to Germany in late September is also expected to help recover ties.
Aside from bilateral engagements with the EU member states, Ankara has been taking major steps to revive its EU process. In the fourth meeting of EU RAG held in Ankara on Aug. 29, it was stressed that Turkey is ready to take fresh steps for implementing new reforms in all fields.
"President [Jean-Claude] Junker has kept saying we want Turkey to be on the European path, we want Turkey to come back, and we want Turkey to work with us on the basis of the EU and Council of Europe. The recent paper of the RAG was a very strong message," Berger said.
"Many things were addressed in this paper that we have been discussing in the last months. We understand there is now a program of things to do. So it would be very interesting to see what measures will be implemented. But many of the topics addressed there are certainly very important," he underlined.
The Turkish Foreign Ministry stressed in a press release that, "The Reform Action Group agreed on accelerating the political reform process. In the context of our EU membership objective, the standards of the Council of Europe, of which Turkey is a founding member, the norms and the acquis of the EU, to which Turkey is a candidate country, will act as an anchor in the steps to be taken."
Berger said that with an aim of holding discussions and increasing engagement, there will be a series of visits at the ministerial and commissioners level from the EU side in the upcoming period.
"Commissioners are coming. One commissioner is already confirmed; Ms. Bulc, the transportation commissioner, will come for the opening of the third airport in Istanbul. The humanitarian commissioner will be coming here very often. The Enlargement Commissioner Mr. Hahn will come soon. Colleagues will have meetings at the technical level, service level. We also have colleagues coming to intensify the discussion on the facilities for refugees for ongoing projects," the EU ambassador stated.
'EU supports Turkey's diplomatic efforts, closely monitoring the situation in Idlib'
Turkey and the EU have been sharing same concerns for nearly 3 million civilians in Syria's Idlib, fearing a full-scale operation would result in a humanitarian catastrophe.
In order to avert a crisis, Ankara was involved in diplomatic talks with Russia and Iran. This gave relief to the international community recently after Turkey and Russia agreed to establish a de-militarized zone in Idlib and clear off the region from heavy arms and radical groups.
The agreement has been welcomed internationally as it prevented a humanitarian crisis.
Highlighting that the priorities of Turkey and the EU on Idlib are the same, Berger said, "Let me say that there are number of issues we fully agree with Turkey, on Syria in general but also on Idlib in particular. The most important one is that we want a political solution, not a military solution to the conflict in Syria; I think this is the same position that Turkey holds."
"Now on Idlib, given the number of people in that area and the number of civilians and the fact it is a very congested area because many people see it is the last place where they could escape. Like Turkey, we see the risk of a humanitarian catastrophe," he added.
Located near the Turkish border, the province of Idlib is home to more than 3.5 million Syrians, many of whom fled from other cities following attacks by regime forces.
According to the agreement between Turkey and Russia, civilians and the moderate opposition will continue to remain in the region; however, all terrorist groups will be cleared, while laying down their arms at the same time.
"In addition to the political activities and diplomatic efforts in support of Turkey we are closely monitoring the situation and are also evaluating what type of humanitarian assistance may be needed in dealing with the crisis," Berger said, adding that the issue of Idlib will be also a top agenda this week in U.N. meetings in New York.
The ambassador stressed that "in case of a military operation, a push into the city, there will be grave humanitarian issues to be dealt with, in terms of supplying people, providing food and water but also shelter for those who have lost their houses in the bombardments, all of these may lead obviously to push them to the Turkish border. As we have seen in 2011 and the following years."
Migration deal proves Turkey-EU can come up with solutions together
As a neighboring country of war-torn Syria, Turkey has been playing a pivotal role by hosting 3.5 million refugees. Turkey's efforts to alleviate the suffering of people and its policies toward the refugees have been praised by the international community.
Ankara has been calling on its allies to take fair share of the burden since it is impossible for Turkey to assume all the responsibility to meet the needs of the refugees.
Accordingly, Turkey and the EU signed a migration deal which provides support to Turkey regarding the issue of refugees.
"We reached an agreement in March 2016 to provide assistance and I am sure more support can be provided if necessary. The agreement regarding the 3.5 million refugees already in the country and related migration issues shows we can find solutions together," Berger highlighted.
"We agreed to provide 3 billion euros to assist not only Syrians but also the Turkish host communities. It was very clear from the beginning that there is a strong demand on socioeconomic support, health, education, food, water; but the burden is also very strong on the local community. Therefore, the aim of this support is to help Syrians, but also the local communities," he said.
In relation to the activities and the projects which have been conducted with the funds the EU has provided, Berger said, "We have agreements with the Ministry of Health and with the Ministry of Education. Just to give an example, we have agreed to build two public hospitals with the Ministry of Health, one in Kilis and one in Hatay. We have built a number of clinics and health centers around the county."
"With the Ministry of Education, we have agreed to build 215 schools. As you may know, in the beginning, many schools had to run double shifts for Syrian kids. So, in order to lessen the burden on the local schools, we built more schools or added classrooms to existing schools. Now, almost every week, or every other week we are opening a school," he continued.
The EU ambassador also underscored that in the context of the social program, every Syrian refugee who is entitled or eligible to receive the Kızılay card at the moment gets TL 125 ($20) per month.
"The important feature of that program is that the money can be used as they wish. They can spend it on food, and they can spend it on school supplies. They can spend it on electricity," Berger explained.
Commenting on the upcoming plans, Berger said, "We are now preparing the first follow-up contracts, for example with UNICEF, but also the social program like the Kızılay card will continue. Now, we are discussing with the office of the Vice President Fuat Oktay what else we can do, what type of projects we want to carry out in the future."
As the EU Commission agreed to continue with another 3 billion euros in April, Berger said now discussions are being held about the projects that will be funded.
EU does not agree with the US over sanctions
Commenting on the strong economic ties between Turkey and the EU, Berger stated, "The Turkish and EU economies are very much intertwined. This is true for many sectors, like the automotive industry, service sector, food, and many other areas. Turkey is fully incorporated in the European production and supply chain. You know the figures; more than 50 percent of Turkish exports go to the EU. More than 60 percent of foreign direct investment comes from the EU. For us, Turkey is the fifth largest partner for exports, and the sixth largest import partner."
Highlighting that there is a very close interaction between the economies, Berger said that various issues bind Turkey and the EU together in the economic field.
Touching on the U.S.' sanctions, the EU envoy said, "Obviously, we have publicly reacted to the tariffs imposed by the U.S. both on the EU and Turkey. We do not agree with what the U.S. is doing and we are cooperating with countries that are similarly affected as we are at the World Trade Organization in taking the necessary legal steps."
Washington imposed sanctions on two Turkish ministers for not releasing American pastor Andrew Brunson, who faces terrorism-related charges in Turkey. In the face of sanctions, Ankara and Europe voiced strong criticism toward the move of the U.S.
Referring to the economic situation, Berger underlined, "As Mr. Junker said in August our interest is to have Turkey as a democratic, stable and prosperous country. It is good for our neighbors; it is good for us. This is quite a fundamental aspect of our enlargement and neighborhood policy."