Turkey seeks improved ties with Greece without shifting stance on key concerns such as casus belli in Aegean

ANKARA – Turkey values its relationship with Greece and has no intention of resorting to the use of force in the Aegean – but only as long as Greece does not exercise its right to extend its territorial waters, Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul told Kathimerini English Edition during an exclusive interview on Thursday in his Ankara office. Gul said his government aimed to cooperate more closely with Greece and Cyprus as a regional unit within the European Union, adding that this would be facilitated by a comprehensive settlement on Cyprus. But the minister, who is also Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister, said he was not optimistic about a solution for reunifying the island and blamed Cypriot President Tassos Papadopoulos for the deadlock. Gul also described the challenges Turkey has faced in its efforts to meet the standards of an EU candidate state and refuted claims that his Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AK) is trying to stamp a more Muslim way of life upon secular Turkey. You have pledged to speed up the implementation of European-focused reforms to meet EU demands. What have been the biggest obstacles in this process? First of all, just starting negotiations is a very important step for Turkey, and we are grateful to all member states, including Greece, for supporting us. Now we are looking forward to smooth and successful negotiations, and we don’t know how long this will take. Everything depends upon Turkey’s performance in all areas. Which have been the most challenging sectors which you are expected to reform to EU norms? Agriculture has been a very difficult area. Turkey joined the customs union in 1995 and it has been changing its legislation in accordance with the acquis communautaire since then. And, of course, the economy is a challenging area. The government has been criticized for its new penal code, which some say curbs freedom of expression. This penal code is new. To change the whole penal code is not easy but we did it. The penal code relates to the whole of life itself – a dynamic area – and so it needs to be changed from time to time. Implementation is very important – if there are problems and things are not going according to our intentions, we will correct them. There have been issues raised with regards to freedom of expression but these have arisen due to prosecutors’ demands, and their conviction that some writers have broken the law. But it is the courts that will ultimately decide on whether this is the case. In your dual role as foreign minister and deputy prime minister for an EU candidate state, you face the challenge of satisfying EU demands while also dealing with domestic pressures. Do you believe it is possible to respect European values (minority rights, right to freedom of speech) without compromising national integrity? First of all, we share European values. We are proud with the changes in this country so far but we will continue with the reform process. But do you have concerns about boosting the rights of Kurds, for example, due to concerns of national integrity? The existence of minorities in Turkey has been recognized since the Treaty of Lausanne was signed in 1923. And minorities should enjoy their rights. If there are any problems, we are more than ready to protect these rights. They are all Turkish citizens. Any differences are artificial. For years, Turks, Kurds, Bosniaks, Chechens – all Muslim – have lived together. This is not to say that we have not had problems. But these problems need to be solved within the broader democratic framework. And upgrading our democratic standards to the level of member states is the best way for a solution. Before there was no broadcasting for Kurds. Do you find, though, as a party with Islamic roots that you face resistance – from the National Assembly, for example – to changes you are trying to push through? For example, there has been criticism of the creation of alcohol-free zones in Turkey from those who claim that your government is trying to impose a more Muslim way of life on Turkey. Thank you for bringing up this topic because there has been so much misunderstanding on many levels. There is no ban on alcohol. Our minister of interior made statements to clarify this topic. So why the confusion? New regulations that have been introduced simplify the procedure of getting licenses to open a restaurant but there are restrictions on the location of places serving alcohol. That is all. The rest is propaganda. Many European leaders have commented that Turkey has a key role to play in defusing tensions between the West and the Muslim world (and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently joined Spanish PM Jose Luis Rodrigo Zapatero in forming an «alliance of civilizations» to this aim). Specifically, how do you believe that Turkey can help in this area? This is the first time that a Muslim country is fulfilling Copenhagen political criteria – European standards, democracy, human rights. This means Muslim countries can be comfortable with the modern world. I am sure Muslim countries are monitoring developments very closely and admiring what is happening here. And I feel that if we change the climate here, we can influence the surrounding region. If you look at newspapers in Muslim countries you will see a lot of articles analyzing Turkey’s orientation towards the EU. In this month’s summit of the Organization for the Islamic Conference (OIC) in Mecca, a 10-year action plan was drawn up for reforms in Muslim countries, focusing on greater transparency, accountability for politicians, human rights, the role of women, etc. As an administration with its origins in the Islamist movement, have you had problems in convincing your supporters of the need to modernize Turkey? When you look at opinion polls, an overwhelming proportion of our party’s grass roots supported EU accession for Turkey. We also have great support from the people, too, including religious-oriented people. But recent polls have shown that a large proportion Turks are opposed to Turkey joining the EU. How are you trying to convince them of the benefits of membership? First of all, it is not that high a percentage – only 30-35 percent are against EU membership and this is because they were not happy with the EU’s treatment of Turkey; they thought that it was asking for different criteria from Turkey than other candidate states. There is also some opposition from nationalists. Many European leaders noted that negotiations between Turkey and the EU would herald «a very big change» for both sides. In what ways do you expect Turkey and Europe to change? Both sides have a new status now. The EU proved to the Muslim world that it is not a Christian club. Turkey’s status as accession candidate will change the country, too. It is undergoing a process of transformation. Turkey’s membership of the EU is a win-win situation for both sides. In 10 years’ time, Turkey will be a very different country.