Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Tuesday, 18 December 2012
Joint Oireachtas Committee on European Union Affairs
Exchange of Views with Mr. Egemen Bagis, Turkish Minister for Europe and Principal Turkish Negotiator for EU Membership.
I extend a warm welcome to our colleagues from Turkey. We are delighted to have them visit the joint committee. They met with the Minister of State for European Affairs earlier and will meet the Tánaiste after this meeting. I hope our visitors' short trip to Ireland is productive and informative. While I have visited Turkey three times, my pronunciation of the names of our visitors may offend. I apologise. I welcome Mr. Egemen Bagis, Turkish Minister for Europe and the principal EU negotiator. The Minister is accompanied by Alaattin Büyükkaya, Deputy Minister for European affairs, Haluk Ilicak, under-secretary of the Ministry for European Affairs, Burak Erdenir, deputy under-secretary, and Altay Cengizer. Though I needed help with that last name, it should have been the most straight-forward to pronounce as I recognise Mr. Cengizer and his name. He is the Turkish ambassador.
I understand that among the reasons for this visit to Ireland is to examine the position on the Turkish accession process. I hope that as Ireland takes over the EU Presidency during the next six months we will see a re-energising of our accession negotiations. Following the contribution from the Turkish Minister, my committee colleagues will be allowed to put any question or make any comments. The Minister may then respond.
Mr. Egemen Bagis:
I thank the joint committee for its hospitality and the opportunity to share my views on the relationship between Turkey and the EU in advance of the Irish Presidency. I arrived with my delegation yesterday and spent a day in Drogheda. It is a lovely town that symbolises the friendship between our two great nations. Our history with Ireland is deep and built on mutual respect and solidarity.
The Turkish-EU relationship is not new. It is historical. Our first application to join the Community was in 1959. We have been trying to become members of the club for 53 years. It took 45 years just to get a date to start accession negotiations, which commenced in 2004. It has been eight years since the process began. We opened the first chapter in 2005 and since then have opened 13 more. There are 20 more chapters to be opened, of which 17 are politically blocked. We cannot open them but hope during the Irish Presidency to unblock some. The three which can technically be opened are the ones every accession country left to the end of their process because of the economic hardship they represent to candidate nation economies. I have had extensive talks with the Minister of State with responsibility for European Affairs, my good friend Deputy Creighton. We understand that Turkey will not become a member during the Irish Presidency, but it is an opportunity to put our relationship with the EU back on track. We understand that it will take some time and that at the end of the process Turkey may decide to become a member state, notwithstanding certain shortcomings. Turkey might be vetoed by certain countries as happened with the UK, Spain and Portugal previously. It may be the case that, like Norway, Turkey chooses not to become a member. As of now, we must continue a process which is good for both sides.
As Turkey approves and implements more EU reforms and the acquis communautaire, it becomes a dependable ally, important market and a bridge to other nations. Turkey is currently playing a crucial role geographically and historically. I am very happy to see that we have friends in Ireland who understand that Turkey can carry some of Europe's burdens and does not represent, as is wrongly believed by some, a burden to it. I am happy to see that Ireland is on the right track and look forward to its Presidency.
I join the Vice Chairman in extending a warm welcome to our Turkish colleagues. I am heartened by the fact that the Turkish issue is back on the agenda. I have long been a supporter of Turkish negotiations with the EU, which are good for both parties. The process is good for Turkey in that certain requirements of the acquis communautaire must be complied with. I do not doubt the importance of that in negotiations and to the future Turkish access to Europe and the speed with which it can become a member state. Hopefully, more negotiations will take place in contrast to the recent period of abeyance. That lull was not good. If accession discussions drag on too long, the credibility of the process is called into question, which benefits no one.
Among the issues which come to mind is the ongoing Kurdish problem. It represents a problem for the EU, Turkey and the Kurds. The question is the extent to which an accommodation can be reached in the context of the negotiations now taking place which is sufficient to reassure the EU, accommodate the Kurds and permit Turkey to proceed to the next stage. Turkey has an important role to play in the current circumstances pertaining in the Middle East and western Balkans. The EU must recognise and encourage that. The EU must draw on the influence and peaceful, positive resources Turkey has at its disposal to ensure progress in that part of the world. Cyprus represents another issue which has been in abeyance for some time. We have some experience of problems which appear to be insoluble in Ireland. They have to be dealt with eventually. It is only natural that the Cyprus issue should be examined more closely in the context of negotiations. Hopefully, an accommodation will be arrived at which benefits and satisfies everyone.
I extend a warm welcome to the Turkish Minister. I am a Sinn Féin Deputy. While our party is not ideologically opposed to Turkish accession, we are aware that many in Europe are for reasons ranging from economic concerns to pure racism. There are others who have strategic concerns about whether the EU wishes to have a border with Syria and Iraq.
Some people share strategic concerns about whether the EU wants to have a border with countries such as Syria and Iraq because of their difficulties. Our position is that Turkey should have the right to join if it meets the criteria on human rights, rule of law and so on. Cyprus and the situation of the Kurds is a key area of concern. I presume this is part of the discussions and difficulties that Turkey will encounter in its application process. As Mr. Bagis said, it is a long time to wait for accession. I have no difficulty with the idea that the Irish Government would examine many of the difficulties facing his country.
Turkey still occupies the north of Cyprus. It is the only state in the world to recognise the Turkish republic of northern Cyprus. For many countries and parties within the EU, recognition of the rights of the Cypriot nation would be a precondition for Turkish entry into the EU. I am aware that direct talks between the two communities there began in 2008. Does Mr. Bagis expect those talks to continue from the point where President Christofias and Mr. Talat left them? Many would see the occupation and colonisation of the country as a war crime. Does Mr. Bagis not think that withdrawing his country's troops and settlers would contribute to peace and stability in this turbulent region? There is a similar situation in Palestine where settlers are coming in and creating difficulties. Does he not accept that Turkey must withdraw its forces from Cypriot soil before it can realistically be considered as a candidate country for the EU? Does Turkey recognise the right of the Cypriot people to exploit their own natural resources, including those that may be found at sea? These issues represent some of the difficulties Turkey will face.
Legacy issues arise from past conflicts. We in Ireland share these in respect of similar difficulties. I was pleased to see that the committee on missing persons in Cyprus is proceeding with a humanitarian task and is exemplary in the communal project to alleviate the pain and sorrow that people are experiencing in that part of the world. Does Turkey intend to give Cyprus full access to military zones and the war archives, where the records of clearing the battlefields are kept, to facilitate the location, exhumation and identification through DNA of the 2,000 missing persons in Cyprus? Would Mr. Bagis regard that as a positive step in trying to resolve that issue?
Another speaker mentioned Kurdistan and the difficulties there. Will Turkey move swiftly to engage with Kurdish representatives? I am aware that there were negotiations during the recent hunger strike in many of the jails and there was hope that initiatives would be taken in respect of various NGOs and the BDP to find a solution because many lives have been lost. This instability and difficulties are issues being raised in connection with Turkey's access to the EU.
I welcome Mr. Bagis and the group from Turkey. It is fair to say that there is a certain amount of concern in Europe about a country of Turkey's size coming into the Union and its impact on migration. Would Mr. Bagis say something about the current economic situation in Turkey and the levels of employment and industry there because the last record we have for the population is 74 million? I share some of the concerns expressed about Greece and Cyprus. Would Mr. Bagis say something about Turkey's relations with those countries? How do Turkey's neighbours view its membership of the EU? Turkey has come out against the Assad regime in Syria which is welcome and has taken a strong stance on the upheavals in Libya, Egypt and other countries.
I extend a warm welcome to the Minister and his delegation from Turkey. It is important that Turkey advances its application for membership of the Union. Never before has it been so important that a country such as Turkey becomes a member of the EU. It would stabilise the region. I have worked with Mr. Bagis' colleagues and the Turkish delegation to the Council of Europe, one of whom became president. I was delighted to vote for and support him. It was a great breakthrough.
Excellent. I struck a good chord there. He acquitted himself extraordinarily well in the Council of Europe while continuing to work. He made a very good impression on Turkey's behalf.
I share the concerns about Cyprus. I have never stood in northern Cyprus and do not intend to do so unless there is a free northern Cyprus or at least a united Cyprus. Too many British and Irish people have bought properties in northern Cyprus whose title is questionable. In most cases they are not entitled to it because it was taken from the residents during the war. I am amazed at the status of Famagusta. It was one of the most beautiful cities in Europe in the 1960s and now it is a ghost town. Through goodwill on both sides, this issue must be resolved. As Deputy Crowe said, our difficulties were as extreme as those in Cyprus and I have no doubt that with the support of the Greek and Turkish Governments there will be an agreement there. I hope that will be pushed forward and I recommend that Turkey move in that direction as part of its application. It is a barrier to full membership of the EU. Most Irish people would be of that opinion. That aside, I welcome the Minister and his delegation and support the Turkish application for membership of the EU but there is a great deal of work to be done in the meantime. Turkey had acquitted itself very well in respect of Syria. Its support for humanitarian aid there is much respected. The situation is very difficult and tense. I commend the Turkish Government on the way it has handled that issue.
I shall add a few comments before handing over to the Minister for his response. Like many of my colleagues, I have visited his country on several occasions. Speaking personally, I am very supportive of Turkey's membership of the EU. I would like to see the process in which it is engaged start again, be re-energised and move forward. Turkish membership of the EU would benefit the union, Turkey and the broader region. Like some of my colleagues, I urge the minister to do all he can in respect of the concerns we have all articulated about Cyprus.
It is a country towards which many Irish people have an affinity. We would very much want to see progress made in this area to reflect the journey we went on as a country. I also hope to see one day in the future that Turkey would be given the choice to fully join the European Union. I hope that decision will be a positive one.
Mr. Egemen Bagis:
I thank the Chairman and the committee members for their interesting remarks, questions and ideas. I really enjoyed this frank and sincere chat. I will be as a frank and sincere myself.
One needs to understand and, at least, have a vision for what the European Union stands. Is it an economic or political union or something else? The European Union, as far as I am concerned, is the grandest peace project of the history of mankind. It has ensured sustainable peace, solidarity and stability on the Continent. Many nations that have fought for centuries with their neighbours, including Ireland, have come to a permanent peaceful resolution because of the Union. As it is the greatest peace project of mankind, it is still a very continental project. Unfortunately, it does not cover the whole Continent either. I agree with Deputy Durkan about the Balkans. This continental project cannot leave any black holes or black mountains in the heart of Europe. We have to enlarge this message of peace and that is where Turkey's membership comes in. The day Turkey joins the European Union, we will help transform this continental project into a global peace project. Turkey's messages, combined with the messages of peace, democracy and human rights, will have a much greater geographical effect.
Today, Turkey is the most eastern part of the west and the most western part of the east. I do not believe the Cyprus problem, which was not a prerequisite for EU membership for Cyprus, should turn into one for Turkey's membership. It is a relevant problem but was not relevant enough to stop Cyprus from becoming a member. It should not be an obstacle to Turkey's membership.
We are willing to deal with the Cyprus problem in a peaceful manner. When my party came to power in 2002, for the past 40 years no Greek Cypriots had been allowed into Turkey. One of our first actions was to change that. We asked the Turkish Cypriots to do the same and we opened the way for the exchange of travel between Northern Cyprus and Southern Cyprus. In the past nine years, nearly all Greek Cypriots have been to the north and nearly all Turkish Cypriots have been to the south. Thankfully, there have been no disagreements, fights or casualties. These two peoples on the same island get along and live together.
However, one fact we must accept is that when the sun shines on that beautiful island, it shines on two different states with two different elected presidents, parliaments, school systems and so forth. My Government recognises one of these two while the Irish Government recognises the other when in reality there are two states and governments on the island. The idea should be to merge these states into one, which we have been attempting to do since 2002. This was the whole idea behind the United Nations peace plan formulated by the then UN Secretary General, Mr. Kofi Annan.
The Turkish Cypriots supported the plan, despite the resistance of their own president at the time. However, the Greek Cypriots rejected it as did their president. While we want to unite the two states, it is up to the people of Cyprus to decide. Turkey will support and bless any solution that is accepted by Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots, as long as it is based on political equality. Political equality will ensure that once we take away all our troops from the island, we will not end up in a situation like 1974 when we had to send the troops in. We do not enjoy keeping our troops on the island as it is a significant cost to us. The presence of Turkish troops has been enjoyed by the Greek Cypriots as well as they voted to keep the troops on the island. If the Annan plan had been accepted, the number of Turkish troops would be down to 650 while Greek troops would have been down to 900. The plan proposed that after 2010 there would be no more troops left on the island except for British troops. The Greek Cypriots voted to keep Turkish troops on the island because they know it has ensured peace and sustainable development. I guess what these soldiers eat and buy has been good for the economy.
After the 2004 referendum on the Annan plan, there was a unanimous Council decision to lift the blockade against Northern Cyprus. It would have been just like Ireland trading with Taiwan without recognising it. However, it was blocked by the Greek Cypriot Government. If the embargo were lifted, that would be enough for us to open airports and seaports to Greek Cypriot planes and vessels. The Greek Cypriot economy has one of the largest commercial fleets in the world. It is a shame it does not have access to the largest ports of the Mediterranean because of this attitude. If Aer Lingus were to fly to Ercan Airport, not only would it be a profitable route, it would give us the leverage to open our airspace to Greek Cypriot planes. As they are forced to fly around Turkish airspace, they spend an extra €20 million on fuel. Access to Turkish seaports would give Greek Cypriot goods access to a market of 75 million Turks.
We recognise the Greek Cypriot nation but Ireland has to recognise the other one as well. We have always encouraged the Turkish Cypriots to continue talks with their Cypriot neighbours. Deputy Crowe referred to the talks between the Northern Cyprus President, Mehmet Ali Talat, and the Cypriot President, Demetris Christofias. The only reason Mehmet Ali Talat lost the presidential election was because his people thought he was too soft on the Greek Cypriots. His opponent, Derviş Eroğlu, took over and through Turkey's intervention and motivation, he had more than three years of talks with Demetris Christofias. The Turkish Cypriots did continue their talks. It was Demetris Christofias who announced he wanted to stop the talks because he does not want to run for re-election. We are now focused on the choice of the Greek Cypriot people for their next president. Whoever it is, we will still encourage the Turkish Cypriots to continue the talks.
However, let us agree on one fact. If there was a solution on the island, both sides would profit economically so much that the benefits of the solution would outweigh by many multiples the deficits of there being no solution. President Christofias has announced that his country is on the brink of bankruptcy during the Cypriot Presidency which casts much doubt on the credibility of the European Union. We all should be worried about this and we should not let any member state fall into bankruptcy. If it was not for his attitude of no solution, then the whole island, including the beautiful city of Famagusta mentioned earlier, would be a haven of prosperity.
The reason Famagusta is a mislaid ghost town is because of their attitude. We are willing to move. I agree that if the Annan plan had been approved, Famagusta would be one of the most attractive tourism destinations in Europe right now but it is not my country's fault that the city is a ghost town. Who rejected the solution to the problem?
As far as Deputy Kyne's issue of migration is concerned, Turkey is a country of 75 million. Our unemployment rate is the best in Europe today. Our median age is 29. We have a young population. Some 65% of my nation is below the age of 34. I happen to be one of the youngest Ministers in the Government, but 75% of my nation is younger than I am.
Our people are no longer migrating. The number of Turkish immigrants to Europe last year was much less than the total number of European emigrants to Turkey. There are ever more Irish, Germans, French and Dutch who choose Turkey as their place of retirement. They buy homes or rent property, and the enjoy the beautiful Mediterranean climate. In Antalya, for example, there is sunlight 300 days of the year and the cost of living is much cheaper.
Mr. Egemen Bagis:
Many people have. Alanya is the home town of my friend, Mr. Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, who Senator Leyden mentioned and who became the Speaker of the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly. In Alanya, there are more than 50,000 Germans alone. They have their own church, NGOs, associations, clubs, gatherings and schools. Alanya is now a German city with a Turkish minority. It is becoming ever more popular.
My countrymen are not migrating to Europe because they know there are many more opportunities in Turkey than there are in Europe. In the past four years, as European Union member states were growing the rate of 1.5%, my country has been moving with an economic growth rate of 8% per year. According to the OECD, we will continue to be the fastest growing economy in Europe until 2020. Also according to OECD, by 2050, Turkey will be the second largest economy of Europe; it is now the sixth. There is no migration threat.
If there is anyone in the members constituencies who feels like making a change in their life, my country would be very much interested in opening its arms to them. We are not afraid of migration.
Mr. Egemen Bagis:
We have enough places in our country and in our hearts to host them. There are approximately 7,000 Irish who live in Turkey and there are fewer than 1,500 Turks who live in Ireland.
As far as the economic situation is concerned, we are moving ahead but we never saw the European Union as an economic union. Economically, it would not make that much sense for us to join the European Union but, as far as it being the greatest peace project is concerned, Turkey must be there because we want to be able to carry on this message.
Earlier today I mentioned in a speech that when people in Libya, Egypt and Tunisia look at Turkey, they say, "Look at these Turks. They have a similar tradition, culture, religion, geography and agricultural policies and they are very much like us, but yet they are so much more advanced because they have a Government and an opposition, labour unions, a free-market economy, better schools, much better hospitals, great roads, airports and so forth, and the question is: how come we do not have what they have?" Many risk their own lives to be like Turkey and to turn their country into what Turkey represents for them, but the real strength of Turkey, the real reason Turkey is different despite so many similarities, is that it is a democracy which has been strengthened by our determination to become a member of the European Union. Most of these reforms which we have conducted in Turkey and which made Turkey what it is today were made in line with our European Union reforms. That is why this process itself is much more important than the end result. That is why we know we will not become a member tomorrow and by the way, looking at the current scene, we prefer not to become a member tomorrow.
Keeping the process alive is very important and blocking the chapters is Europe shooting itself in the foot. Let the process move. Let Turkey achieve the standards, become an important market for member states' products and services and an ally partner in international fora, and then when the time comes for the question of membership, every member state will have the right to veto any potential candidate country. I hope that the Irish Presidency will give this new vision to the European Union. Right now, Ireland's trade with Turkey is greater than its trade with Russia, Brazil and India, all of which are BRIC countries. Ireland has much more in common with us than with all of these emerging powers.
It is inconvenient for the European Union if Turkey starts to apply EU legislation by opening chapters. This relationship must be understood, that it is based on a win-win platform. We are becoming much more democratic, thanks to the European Union. We are applying the European Union's rules. We are becoming much more transparent and we are becoming much more prosperous, thanks to the European Union. However, we need not follow the European Union's guidelines. We can do it on our own too, but we would rather do it with the European Union than on our own. It is important that Turkey moves on.
We have not opened any chapters in the negotiation process in the past five Presidencies. All members present are politicians. They understand how public opinion functions. Ours cannot continue with the status quo. I am losing public opinion. Support for European Union membership is down from 78% to 35% or 40%, but if Turkey decides to withdraw its application one day, then there will be a finger-pointing game on who lost Turkey in Brussels. It is not in the interests of anyone, including Cyprus.
Many of the committee members mentioned Cyprus and I note the ambassador of the Greek Cypriot Administration is in the Gallery. It would be the biggest nightmare for Cyprus if Turkey was to decide that it was no longer interested in European Union membership. The committee should not forget that Turkey is not only one of the largest economies in Europe, but also one of the largest military powers of Europe, and the second largest in NATO. Keeping Turkey in the same club is the cheapest insurance policy for Cyprus and pushing Turkey away is, in the simplest terms, silly.
I thank the Minister for attending. It is a pleasure to meet him. He is very eloquent and captures the sorts of areas that are important in a prospective member of the EU. Turkey is a country of 75 million people with a very big landmass. It is the pivotal point between East and West and the landmasses of Europe and Asia. It has long traditions and has had great democratic developments in recent times. It has enormous patience - some 53 years represents two generations in family terms. It has an interesting economy. There is now a net inflow of migration rather than the outflows of the 1960s to Germany and other countries.
That shows an evolution towards enlargement of the population of the family of Europe within a peacetime resonance. It is a task to be addressed by us in Europe and following the distractions and tensions of what has been at play for the past three or four years since the financial crisis and the eurozone's problems, it could bring a new energy. I liked the way the Minister spoke about the neighbourhood of Cyprus because that is what it is. It is two communities of different traditions in the neighbourhood of the islands of Greece and the large landmass of Turkey. I encourage the Minister to continue the work. I say to my European colleagues that they should warm the invitation and get down to the practicalities of creating the framework for an enlarged family. I wish the Turkish delegation well in their visit here and their work on the mainland of Europe.
I welcome the Minister and his team. I have debated in my own head as to whether Turkey should reside within the EU or elsewhere. It is very much a pivotal country and plays a very important role in the world because of its geographical positioning. Therefore, from our selfish viewpoint in the EU, it is much better to have it with us rather than against us or even in an ambiguous place. In that sense a movement in the direction of membership would be very worthwhile. I will not go through the issues others have raised, some of which I share. Clearly there are cultural differences, but there are also cultural similarities.
I wish to record my appreciation of some of the work Turkey has done on the Syrian civil war. I appreciate Turkey is in a very difficult position there and it has worked with great sensitivity on the issue so as not to get involved directly while at the same time helping those who needed help at its border.
One of the possible concerns about Turkey being part of the EU is that it would bring us directly in touch with areas of the world where there is very considerable trouble. Turkey has borders with Syria, Iraq, Iran and the Caucuses region. If Turkey became a member of the EU, would it have any impact on the politics in those bordering countries? If so, would that impact be positive or negative?
I have a final question on a different theme, although Deputy Mathews touched upon it. To what extent has the economic crisis in Europe influenced the views of Turkish citizens regarding membership of the European Union? When we attend COSAC meetings, the Minister's colleagues from the Turkish Parliament often make the point that the Turkish economy already meets the criteria for the fiscal compact and met all the criteria for the Stability and Growth Pact. What impact has the economic crisis in Europe had on attitudes in Turkey? I hope the process can move forward because I believe there is far more in common between Turkey and the European Union than there are differences. I hope Turkey's application can be reactivated and progressed under our Presidency. I again thank the Minister for attending and I ask him to respond to those final questions.
Mr. Egemen Bagis:
I thank the members for their constructive comments and questions. Regarding the economic crisis, no crisis lasts forever and every crisis eventually comes to an end. In 1999 and 2001, Turkey had 8,000% interest rates between banks overnight. We had a single day in our history when the country's president and prime minister had a major argument where the president threw a printed copy of the constitution at the face of the prime minister. That night our stock market plunged and the banks started charging each other 8,000% interest rates overnight. However, for the past five years Turkey has been the most stable and fastest-growing economy in Europe. Things change. It takes fiscal discipline, commitment and confidence, but it changes. Despite the economic crisis, per capita prosperity in Europe is higher than in anywhere else in the world.
While I accept Ireland has 14% or 15% unemployment, at least people still have hope. Ireland's food hygiene standards are better than most of the world. People are not afraid getting sick as a result of eating something in a restaurant. Ireland's school system functions very well and the health system functions. Ireland has some set policies in terms of its citizens' access to public services. It has what it takes to turn this around. It will take some time but it will happen. That is why we are so committed. We feel that we are part of Europe. Some 50% of our foreign trade is with the EU.
Some 85% of all international investments and 92% of new technology in my country comes from the EU. Turkey is a full member of every European organisation, including EUFOR, the European Investment Bank, European security and defence policies and participates in the Eurovision but it is still only a negotiating member of the EU. Two Turkish princes were called "Europe" and "Paris".
What unites us is much greater than that which divides us. Historically, it was believed that Turkey was too large. Now being a big country presents a great opportunity for a European economy because big markets are needed to deal with the current status. It is no longer accurate to say Turkey is too poor because it is now one of the most dynamic economies. The argument that Turkey is a Muslim country is now advantageous because of the need to send out a clear message to the 1.5 billion Muslims around the world that the EU is not anti-Islam, in particular to the 35 million Muslims who live in today's EU as rightful citizens. More than 10% of the population of France are Muslim. The ratio of Muslims in Germany is approximately the same and is growing in many other countries not only through migration but by choice. I believe Turkey can play an important role in this regard. For more than 200 years we have successfully coexisted the culture of Islam with the culture of democracy.
On the point made by Deputy Dowds in regard to Turkey's neighbours, no country gets to choose its neighbours. As problematic as they are, we would be willing to change neighbours with Ireland if we had the choice. However, we cannot. I wish Switzerland was a neighbour of Turkey. Peace, prosperity and democracy can be also contagious. I believe that Turkish economic development and its success story is a part of the foundation of the Arab spring-awakening. Without giving in on our values we changed things, which people in our neighbourhood saw. The Turkish Prime Minister can pray with the local people in Libya and can, on coming out of the mosque, tell them not to be afraid of secularism. Being secular does not necessarily mean one has abandoned one's religion. Being secular ensures everyone has the right to practise his or her religion of choice. If the European Union really represents peace and understanding among different nations, ethnicities, religions and cultures this message is very much needed in today's Syria, Egypt, Iraq, Iran and so on. Turkey is trying to deliver that message.
The Syrian people were mentioned. More than 150,000 Syrians have found shelter in Turkey. We have spent more than €400 million in the past year trying to meet the expenses of these people. This is not an issue which we can address on our own. We need to work together on this and to convince our Russian colleagues not to support a dictator who is killing his own people and bombing his own cities. When it comes to Syria, the Turkish government has prioritised humanitarian values over its national interest. Turkey was the first Muslim country to call on Mubarak to leave office, as it did in respect of Gadaffi. Our national interest could have diverted us to look the other way and continue with our trade but the problem would then have become only more complicated and would have hurt us all.
The economic crisis will not last forever. Does this affect our public opinion? It does not affect us as much as hearing people like Sarkozy insult us. My countrymen are much more influenced by the negative attitude from Europe towards Turkey's membership aspirations. We know the economic crisis will one day be over and that to achieve this we will have to work together. However, the feeling of indifference and the insulting attitude are more relevant. We want fair treatment. The fact that Turkey is a great nation should not be a reason for it to receive any special favours from Europe but it should also not receive any special burdens from it. We want to be dealt with like all other candidate countries were dealt with. That 17 of 20 chapters are being politically blocked does not make sense. The Turkish people are the only citizens of any candidate country who need to apply for visas before visiting the Schengen region, which also does not make sense. As a Minister of the Turkish Government I had to apply for a visa to come to Dublin, which is not right. I can go to the United Kingdom without a visa and can visit all of the other 26 countries with a diplomatic passport. Ireland should not be the only sore thumb. I would welcome the committee's support in this regard.
I am sure many members would be interested in doing so. I again thank Mr. Bagis for attending. It has been a frank meeting and an interesting exchange of views. I hope the remainder of his trip goes well.