Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 25 September 2013
Joint Oireachtas Committee on European Union Affairs
Exchange of Views: Discussion with Turkish Parliamentary Delegation
I remind members to turn off their mobile telephones. It is not sufficient to put them on silent.
I am delighted to welcome a delegation from the Turkish Parliament: Mr. Rubi Acikgoz, chairman of the Turkey-Ireland Interparliamentary Friendship Group and a member of the Justice and Development Party; Ms Safak Pavey, member of the EU harmonisation committee and the Republican People's Party; Mr. Ahmet Kaymaz, legislation expert; and Ms Dilek Demirkol, interpreter.
In 1987 Turkey applied to join the EEC and in 1997 it was declared eligible to join the EU. Negotiations have been under way for several years. The committee is interested in the enlargement issue. We have had several meetings on the Balkans and last December we hosted Mr. Egemen Bagis, Turkish Minister for Europe and principal negotiator for EU membership, for a detailed discussion on how Turkish accession was progressing. The Minister explained that Turkey's long accession process was in many ways as important as membership itself. Having visited Turkey over the past year, I know Turks are keen to progress EU membership but they are disappointed that the process is taking so long bearing in mind other countries have acceded over a much shorter timescale.
I ask Mr. Acikgoz to make some opening remarks.
Mr. Rubi Acikgoz:
First, I thank the committee very much for hosting us. We have been enjoying Irish hospitality and I thank the Chairman and committee members for allocating time to meet us. As the Chairman mentioned, we have been organising visits to enhance relations between Turkish and European parliamentarians and within the scope of these visits, we enjoyed his visit to Turkey. We are glad he has a positive impression from that visit and that he has mentioned that today. I thank him for that.
Turkey and Ireland have been close friends for a long time. There is positive public opinion towards the Irish in Turkey. We believe that the Irish are straightforward and trustworthy. In addition, we have witnessed positive developments during Ireland's EU Presidency. The talks about the opening chapters took place during this period.
I welcome our colleagues from Turkey. We are delighted to have them here. We are renewing associations of some years ago. Many years ago Deputy Eric Byrne and I visited Turkey. Negotiations towards European Union membership have not progressed a great deal in the meantime, but we are glad to note that things have come on to the front burner again as opposed to being postponed.
Many issues face Turkey and the European Union which are of common interest at present. There are many issues to which Turkey can make a major, serious and constructive contribution. In that context in the past ten years or so I have had the honour to attend meetings in the Middle East and eastern Europe, wherein the importance of Turkey's influence in the European Union has been emphasised. We need to recognise that and take it on board at present.
In the context of the ongoing negotiations, I would be a strong supporter of Turkish membership of the European Union and have always been. I strongly support every effort to advance that cause and to try to ensure that the people who wish to become part of the European Union, whether in eastern Europe or elsewhere within the periphery of Europe, do so. The neighbourhood process and the process of integration should be progressed in so far as possible and as quickly as possible.
The delegation is more than welcome. As has already been said a very tightly knit bond exists between Turkey and Ireland. On average 115,000 tourists go from Ireland to Turkey every year, which indicates a great bond and relationship, and fondness for Turkish people.
Let us get down to the nitty gritty. Turkey is a huge country. As my colleague has said, we would be very keen to see Turkey as equal partners with the 28 European Union member states. Turkey and Ukraine are two very important and strategically placed countries. Turkey is emerging more and more as a regional power broker.
I congratulate the Turkish Government on a number of initiatives it has taken. Its Minister for Foreign Affairs seems to be very much in charge of foreign affairs for Turkey and I congratulate some of the decisions he has taken on behalf of the Turkish people. With the backdrop of euroscepticism and the growth of extreme right-wing anti-immigration parties there may be an inherent fear, distrust or lack of knowledge of what Turkey represents. Does it represent a secular society or a Muslim society? Given the ousting of the democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, I know Turkey has a keen interest in developments in the region and has been very progressive on many of the issues. How would the delegates reassure Europe and in the development of Turkey's application for membership, regarding the horrors of what we are witnessing vis-à-vis Boko Haram, al-Qaeda or other fanatical religious groups in the world? Can the witnesses put our minds at rest that Turkey is capable of accommodating the secularist concepts of Atatürk as against the military in Egypt which moved against the Muslim Brotherhood, which was democratically elected?
The witnesses should recognise there are difficulties regarding the issue of Cyprus. I understand some of the chapters are stalled because of the need to negotiate some deals on the use of ports, exports from Cyprus and the question of Famagusta, which we frequently mention. Can substantial progress be made in that relationship?
I congratulate the Turkish Minister for Foreign Affairs who deals with conflict resolution. We are very good at conflict resolution issues here. Maybe we can learn a lot from each other given the terrorism campaign in Northern Ireland and I understand Turkey has difficulties with its electorate in reabsorbing into the mainstream of Turkish society those members of the PKK who had been engaged in terrorist activities there.
It is a broad range of issues. I hope that the eight negotiating chapters on which the ad-hoc committee is working ultimately prove to be positive.
I welcome the delegation. My question is about trade relations between Turkey and the European Union overall. The advantage of trade relations is that dealing in goods between countries can be developed into wider relationships between people. What is the current position as regards access to the European Union market? The EU has trade agreements with China from which we are getting a huge volume of products. What progress has been made in Turkey accessing the EU market?
Turkey is benefiting from EU tourists travelling to the country for holidays and very good facilities are provided. What progress is expected in EU goods coming into Turkey in the next five to ten years? Regardless of when EU membership is dealt with, the trade between Turkey and the EU should be increased in the meantime.
Ms Safak Pavey:
I will do so as much as I can. I extend cead mile fáilte. I thank the Chairman and members of the committee for hosting us. Since this is the Joint Committee on European Union Affairs, I wish to start with Turkey and the European Union, and how important it is to keep the European Union goal on the roadmap of Turkey, both for us and for Europe. A Europe without Turkey would be confined to its own continent. A Turkey without the values and principles of harmonisation with Europe would be confined or would become a prison. We really would like to see this progress happening. So far Ireland has been a very supportive partner nation in that regard. I express appreciation for Deputy Durkan's words. It was great to hear his views and encouraging words in support of Turkish membership.
I turn to the secular issues Deputy Eric Byrne mentioned. Of course we have concerns over some legislation being changed in the area of education. The concern for the future is whether we will be able to reconcile Islam, democracy and secularism which would mean that Turkey would be the only actor that would manage that in the region.
That is why the European Union’s roadmap is so important. It will keep Turkey on the right track.
The accession talks actually started on 12 September 1963, more than 50 years ago. This has been a long and somewhat prolonged engagement and we need some parties to celebrate this. While it may not be an official wedding yet, we need some positive encouragement. That is why we also welcome the positive agenda in our EU accession committee given by the European Commissioner, Mr. Štefan Füle.
The main issue of meetings such as this is the working out of the mutual basis of Irish-Turkish public opinion on Turkish EU membership. If we really believe Turkish membership is the right direction for Europe and Turkey, we need to work genuinely on bringing public opinion to view it more positively. If any committee members visit our country, we would welcome them to view membership not as an abstract concept but one that would have positive developments on working conditions, for example. It is important Turkey would examine chapters 23 and 24 of the EU enlargement acquison fundamental rights and freedoms.
These are some of the issues that I put as food for thought to the committee. I welcome any further questions from members.
The visit of our Turkish guests is both a social and political event. Yesterday, the delegation visited Newgrange and Oldbridge House, the Battle of the Boyne site, in the Boyne Valley. Drogheda, a nearby town, has strong historical links with Turkey. The town’s emblem is the star and crescent dating back to the times of the Crusades. When I was in Ankara earlier this year, I met people from Drogheda doing business there. One of Turkey’s best football teams, Trabzonspor, came to Drogheda earlier this year to play against Drogheda United.
Turkish EU membership would provide great potential trade and other benefits to both Turkey and Ireland. Turkey’s economy is now one of the top dozen in the world. It is important we keep Turkey within the European family and encourage EU membership to be facilitated as soon as possible, a point this committee has expressed a desire to see on many occasions. We are very supportive of the delegation’s efforts.
I thank the Chairman and welcome the delegation to our committee. I hope it enjoys the remainder of its stay in Ireland.
What level of public support is there in Turkey for EU membership? Has that changed with the continuous delays with membership application? Has it changed given the economic conditions experienced in the eurozone? Some have expressed a concern about membership of a country with a population as large as Turkey’s, some 74 million people Some have expressed concern about membership opening up migration from Turkey. While I accept its economy is doing well now, it could change as recessions come and go. How would the delegation allay those concerns?
Mr. Ruhi Acikgoz:
My colleague tried to answer some of the questions and left some for me to answer because I am a member of the governing party. In respect of Deputy Byrne's questions, Turkey is a secular rather than Islamic country. We have always been connected with western and European values and have always tried to go in that direction. We have been advising neighbouring countries that their future is in democracy and democratic values. When our prime minister visited Egypt, he also mentioned the issue of secularism because, as members know, the Muslim Brotherhood has religion at the forefront of its agenda. Our prime minister advised it to think about secularism and to move towards becoming a secular country. This was considered strange even by some religious people in Turkey.
With regard to the issue of Cyprus, I do not expect any positive developments in the near future. The current situation does not help Turkish-EU relations and Turkey's accession to the EU because Cyprus has been blocking the opening of some of the chapters for some time. We have had very good commercial relations with the EU and if one was to look at the volume of our foreign trade, 50% of it is with EU countries. The percentage has decreased from 60% to 50% but it is only the percentage that has decreased. Otherwise, the trade volume is at the same level. The decrease in the percentage is due to our increasing trade volume with countries outside the EU. In the near future, our trade volume with the EU will increase although the percentage will stay the same or decrease. If one was to look at our trade volume of $300 billion, $150 billion is with EU countries, including imports and exports in total. This will increase to $200 billion in the near future.
In respect of Deputy Kyne's comments, the public support for Turkey's EU membership has been decreasing very recently. It was around 60% but has been following a downward trend and is now around 40%. This has been fluctuating over time but if one was to look at the past three to five years, one would see that even though relations between Turkey and the EU have been increasing, there has been a decrease in support for Turkey's EU membership. There are a number of reasons for this. One of them is the loss of enthusiasm and belief that Turkey will one day become a full member of the EU. The second reason relates to announcements by famous parliamentarians to their constituencies in order to carry on their domestic issues.
There will not be a large amount of migration from Turkey to the EU. If we look at recent economic developments in Turkey, we can see that many Turkish people who migrated earlier to Europe are now returning to Turkey. Therefore, I do not expect to see migration from Turkey to the EU akin to that from Romania or Bulgaria to the EU. Turkey is a dynamic country and many people will come back. It will be the other way around. Instead of migration from Turkey to EU countries, we will see migration of Turkish people living in EU countries back to Turkey.
I have one question before we conclude. When I visited Turkey earlier in the year, I met the mayor of Beyoğlu in Istanbul. He told me about his plans for the centre of Istanbul and the proposals to redevelop parts of the city. It was just after I left that we saw an element of unrest on the streets of Istanbul and throughout Turkey. I know from recent news reports that there is still some unrest out there. Could Mr. Acikgoz give us his views on what the situation is and how he thinks it can be resolved for everybody's benefit?
I will try to give my views on this issue. I believe it will be very beneficial for the committee to listen to my colleague from the main opposition party so she will brief it about the opinion of the opposition. In my view, this started with an attempt to rebuild Gezi Park in Istanbul as it appeared in the past. When our Prime Minister announced this project to the public, some artists began to protest against it. An intervention took place and all sides admitted that the force used was disproportionate. There were investigations into what took place and some cases have been brought to court and are still in progress. We have also declared that even though the decision coming out of these courts would be in favour of the project, we would still opt for a plebiscite and ask the opinion of the public in Istanbul.
This began with respect to environmental sensitivity but evolved into a political protest in Turkey. There were major uprisings in major cities where the resignation of the Prime Minister was asked for. Demonstrations did not take place during the school summer holidays. There were expectations that this unrest would resume after the end of the school holidays but we have not seen that happen. These have become politicised and we believe that the events that began about Gezi Park are now evolving into demonstrations that relate to the issue of Syria as well. We are working on a package to convince public opinion. This has become a political issue and this democratic package will be announced by our Prime Minister this weekend. We hope to meet some of the requirements and demands of people regarding freedom and human rights issues so that these issues cannot be used as an excuse for these kinds of demonstrations. Although they are few in number, some radical groups are trying to make use of these kinds of demonstrations and issues to destabilise Turkey. It is not widespread but as I mentioned, the committee should also listen to the perspective of the opposition.
Ms Safak Pavey:
To sum up because it is a large issue, I strongly believe that the Gezi Park protests were not political demonstrations. They were not for democracy and did not relate to an ethnic struggle. They were about the same old and prolonged social divide between the modern and the traditional coming to the surface. Those peaceful protesters who were unfortunately exposed to the extreme use of force by the police and brutal attacks were representing the further clipping away of social freedoms and rights. It was a social explosion that was inter-generational and inter-class. It was just one platform for the youngsters who were pushed away from the cliff of the city to make them invisible in a city that takes its radiance from their humour, joy and modern education. They were asked to be invisible and they resisted and braved an onslaught to save a few trees in a small park that is perhaps one of the few small spaces in my city in which to breathe.
What did they want? Like everybody else including us, they wanted a modern education, to be proud of their jobs, to perhaps kiss freely in public if they wanted to and to walk and have good public transportation in their city. They just wanted social freedoms and to live as happily as possible. This is the social segment at which we are looking. It is very sad that in the following witch hunt, which is ongoing, many people lost their public jobs and many of the youngsters who had been profiled by the police might never have the opportunity of public work.
This is why the EU roadmap is very important. Those youngsters have shown us the newest face of Turkey and we need to look at it very carefully. They have shown the desire to live by universal rights, values and freedoms. That is significant and is the reason we are pushing for chapters 23 and 24 to be opened concretely in the EU talks. That is why the outcome is very important for us and those peaceful protesters. The environment chapter is also on the table between the two parties so perhaps that is where we need more progress in respect of a participatory democratic role for local authorities. That will also be an important question.
I thank the witnesses for their answers to our questions and for attending this meeting. I know some of us are meeting them for dinner later this evening but they will have a number of meetings before then with various groups and political parties. I again thank them for meeting the committee and wish them the very best for the remainder of their visit to Ireland.