Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 13 November 2019
Joint Oireachtas Committee on European Union Affairs
EU Enlargement Strategy: Discussion with Candidate and Potential Candidate Countries
I remind those present to ensure their mobile phones have been switched off. This is important as they can still cause serious problems for broadcasting, editorial and sound staff, even when left in silent mode.
Today we will have a discussion on the European Union's enlargement strategy from the perspective of candidate and potential candidate countries. I warmly welcome the ambassador of the Republic of Turkey to Ireland, Mr. Burhan, and Mr. Jasmin Kahil, chargé d'affaires at the Embassy of the Republic of North Macedonia. I also welcome the ambassadors and other distinguished guests in the Visitors Gallery. I hope they will find the meeting beneficial and informative. I thank Mr. Kahil for taking the time to travel from London to speak to us.
The enlargement stratey encompasses one of the European Union's most important and influential policies. The European Union started with six member states in 1957. Today it has 28 member states, at least for the time being. We, in Ireland, have always been very supportive of enlargement. Ireland joined the European Union over 45 years ago in 1973. Membership of the Union has been of enormous benefit to us, both socially and economically, and we would not pull up the ladder behind us. The opportunity to join the European Union should be open to those countries that meet the membership criteria, although at the same time the Union must be conscious of its capacity. That is an important point.
I am delighted to have the opportunity to build on the discussions we held last year on the European Union's enlargement strategy and discuss it from the point of view of the two candidate countries with which we were not in a position to engage last year. The process for joining the European Union is not an easy one; neither is the process for leaving it. The road to accession is often very bumpy. As we have seen, it can be fraught with political obstacles. We genuinely appreciate, therefore, the immense efforts each candidate country has made to meet the European Union's membership criteria and hope they will be rewarded in time.
When it comes to discussing the efforts the Republic of North Macedonia has made, I am sure no country has changed its name in order to travel down this road.
I was disappointed when the recent European Council was not able to come to an agreed position to move to the next stage of the process with the Republic of North Macedonia. We are very interested in hearing the delegates' perspectives on the benefits of and challenges in the accession process.
By virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the committee. However, if they are directed by it to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. Any opening statement and other document submitted to the committee may be published on its website after the meeting.
Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official, either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.
I invite H.E. Mr. Levent Murat Burhan to make his opening statement.
H.E. Mr. Levent Murat Burhan:
A Chathaoirleach agus a chomhaltaí oirirce den choiste, I thank all of you for giving me the opportunity to address this respectable committee at this important time.
Turkey is a pluralist secular democracy which began to westernise its economic, political and social structures in the 19th century. Following the First World War and the proclamation of the republic in 1923, it chose western Europe as the model for its new secular structure. Turkey was one of the founding members of the United Nations and is a member of the Council of Europe, NATO and the OECD.
For the sake of brevity, I will move to the background to Turkey's relationship with the European Union. The Ankara Agreement which constitutes the legal basis of the association between Turkey and the European Union was signed in 1963, but the negotiations had begun in 1959, the year I was born, which means that it has been a one generation journey which is ongoing. The application for full membership was made in 1987. The eligibility of Turkey as a full member was accepted by the European Commission in 1989. It was also endorsed by the then Council. The customs union was established in 1995. At the Helsinki European Council in December 1999 - a turning point in our relationship - Turkey was officially recognised as a candidate state and accession negotiations started in October 2005. Up to today, 16 of the 35 chapters are open, while only one has been temporarily closed. For the time being, our relations are at a standstill, as defined by the European Union.
I will now share our views on the enlargement process. In our meeting today we will also focus on this aspect of our relationship with the European Union. It is a fact that the European Union has been facing considerable internal and external challenges which are simultaneous and multi-layered. They include the rise of far right and increased populist policies; economic, financial and social concerns; migration pressures; Brexit and the weakening of transatlantic ties. In that context, enlargement has been the most valuable asset in the possession of the European Union. It is clear that if it wants to be an influential actor in the global arena, it needs to keep its doors open.
If the European Union of today, despite the conjunctural challenges it faces, has become a model of integration from the European Steel and Coal Community of 1952, it is thanks solely to the consecutive enlargement waves. On the other hand, enlargement is also the European Union's greatest soft power tool. Constantly questioning it jeopardises its anchor role. Doubts about opening negotiations with the Republic of North Macedonia and Albania raise the issue of reliability of the European Union. Common regional challenges of the Balkan countries require regional dialogue and co-operation. Turkey contributes to the development and prosperity of the Balkans. The Balkan dimension of the European Union’s enlargement policy cannot be finalised unless Turkey's accession process is completed. Considering Turkey as one of the external actors that tries to gain influence in the region is a populistic approach which harms Turkey-EU relations and the interests of the Balkan countries. During the new Commission’s term, we expect the European Union to make enlargement policy a priority. Keeping a strong membership perspective, with no discrimination among candidates, is crucial.
I will now share our views on the current state of affairs between Turkey and the European Union,onthe background to which I have provided some information. Our relationship with the European Union can be described as a complex, multi-layered and multi-dimensional partnership. At the time of Turkey's application for membership to the European Union in 1987, the Turkish Prime Minister, Turgut Özal, likened the process to "a long and narrow road", referring to a famous verse by the folk poet, Ak Veysel. Time has proved that not only has the road been long, winding and narrow but that it has also been bumpy, as mentioned by the Chairman in his opening remarks, yet each time the relationship showed resilience and we found a way through. We are again going through a delicate period, but we believe we will be able to find a way through this time too.
In November last year we had the last high level Turkey-EU political dialogue. We regret the recent decision by the European Union to suspend it as we believe we have a lot to gain from keeping the channels of communication open to better understand each other's views. In December last year the Joint Parliamentary Committee also met after more than a three-year break, but we do not know when the next meeting will take place. In January we had high level dialogue on transport and in February, on the economy. The Turkey-EU Association Council met in March after a four-year break. In the last country report on Turkey, published in May, it was confirmed that Turkey had in general reached a good level of alignment in 22 chapters and that there had been progress at various levels in 20 chapters during the past year. There had been some backsliding in some other chapters. However, we think that alignment cannot be expected to take place independently of the accession negotiations. For that reason, we would like to bring to the attention of the committee chapter 22 - judiciary and fundamental rights - and chapter 24 - justice, freedom and security, being the areas most criticised by the European Union, which chapters remain closed, unfortunately.
Our quest to modernise the customs union to include services and agricultural goods - it would be a win-win for the European Union and Turkey - has been obstructed by the Union, mainly for political reasons. The customs union involves an asymmetric relationship for Turkey, but it has been part of it for the past 20 to 25 years.We need to avoid misperceptions in our relations with the help of proper communication channels.
Parliamentarian diplomacy is one of them. The EU should acknowledge the fact that Turkey's accession process is also in the EU's interest.
Since 15 July 2019, the consecutive conclusions adopted by the Foreign Affairs Council have led to growing resentment in Turkey. The Council's conclusions regarding our drilling activities in the eastern Mediterranean and Operation Peace Spring are unfair and by no means objective. Turkey has the resolve to enhance its bilateral relations with the EU. However, this negative trend, which is further exploited by some member states, should come to an end. The EU should see the reality that the security and prosperity of Europe and NATO start at Turkey's eastern borders. As in the concrete example of the agreement of 18 March, Turkey has always made significant contributions to the security, stability and the prosperity of the EU. We are seeking to have the spirit of co-operation reached on migration in other areas, especially in our fight against terrorism. Our expectation is to implement the agreement of 18 March in its entirety. That involves progress on our accession negotiations, starting the modernisation of the customs union and supporting our efforts on visa liberalisation.
We are committed to the reform process. The parliament passed the first judicial reform package and it entered into force on 24 October 2019. Its objectives, among others, are to improve the independence, impartiality and transparency of the judiciary; further strengthen the freedom of expression and press; enhance the right to a fair trial by setting maximum detention periods; and reduce workloads of the judiciary. Following the adoption of this new law, competent courts have already ruled to release some detainees. This means that there is a legal process in accordance with the laws in force. Domestic legal remedies are in place, including the right of appeal to higher courts, and in the last instance domestically, individual application to the constitutional court is also possible. Where all domestic remedies are exhausted, an individual application to the European Court of Human Rights is also possible.We are now working on the six remaining benchmarks for visa liberalisation.
On the other side, we expect the EU to display visionary leadership and anchoring vis-à-visTurkey. We are aware that Turkey's accession to the EU may be the most difficult and most questioned but once realised its membership will be the most beneficial, for both Turkey and the EU in addition to the wider geographic region. Overcoming the difficulties in Turkey-EU relations will result in significant gains not only for Turkey and the EU but also for our region, the international system and global peace. No other country's membership of the EU is more valuable and meaningful to the people of Europe and its wider geographical area than that of Turkey, in areas ranging from foreign policy to culture, from security to energy and from trade to peace. Turkey's accession is key to addressing the major challenges that the EU and the rest of Europe are facing.
In these testing times, the EU and Turkey need each other more than before and have a lot to gain from co-operation in areas such as the fight against terrorism, security threats, irregular migration, energy security, the economy, trade and transport, in addition to people to people contact, in order to contribute to the security, stability and prosperity of our Continent and beyond. EU is Turkey's largest trade partner while Turkey is the EU's fifth.
Turkey considers itself to be part of the European family. We are a long-standing member of all European structures. Against all odds, becoming a full member of the EU - I emphasise "full member" - is still our strategic objective. Go raibh míle maith agaibh go léir.
Mr. Jasmin Kahil:
I thank the Chairman, the distinguished members of this committee and my dear colleagues. It is a great privilege for me to have the opportunity to represent the case of my country regarding the EU. I will start on our relations with Ireland. The relations are good. Ireland has a special place on our path towards the EU because, during the Irish Presidency of the European Council in 2004, we submitted our application for membership. The day 26 February 2004 was a very sad one for us not because of the submission of the application but because 20 minutes before our then Prime Minister's scheduled meeting in Dublin with the then Irish Prime Minister, Mr. Bertie Ahern, we heard the sad news that our President, Mr. Boris Trajkovski, had died suddenly. Consequently, the submitting of the application was postponed for one month but our then Prime Minister, Mr. Branko Crvenkovski, still attended in April 2004. We became candidates in London in 2005.
In the recent period, the Republic of North Macedonia, which has been the official name since 16 February this year, has completed thorough domestic reforms and has solved longstanding difficult and sensitive open issues with its neighbour Bulgaria. We signed an agreement on friendship and co-operation in 2017. We signed the Prespa agreement with Greecein June 2018. We have shown the maturity to pay a high political price. We believe it is the only path that secures the prosperity of our country. The European perspective, especially the promise to open the accession negotiations, was the key motivation for us to deliver on all fields. That is why there is a great feeling of disappointment and bitterness among the citizens of North Macedonia, regardless of their ethnicity. The EU did not deliver on the long-promised start of the accession negotiations although we have delivered by carrying out reforms and changing such a sacred thing as the name of the country, which is a still a highly polarising issue among our citizens. Even with the reward of entering the EU and NATO, the changing of the name was too high a price. One can imagine how great the disappointment was when we did not get at least half of the price, that is, a start to the negotiations with the EU. The atmosphere is very disappointing.
North Macedonia has been an EU candidate country since December 2005, when Britain held the Presidency under former UK Prime Minister Mr. Tony Blair. Since then, we had a very bumpy road in our negotiations, or on starting the negotiations with the EU. We believed we had done our homework and that everything would be ready for this year but what we wanted did not happen. Fortunately, NATO fulfilled its promise so we are going to be the 30th NATO member country, probably by April of next year. It should have been December 2019 but, because of the internal problems in Spain, which would be the last country to ratify the accession protocol for NATO, we are not going to catch the Leaders' summit in London on 3 and 4 December. We hope, however, we will be a member of NATO by April next year.
There are already some consequences arising from last month's EU Council decision. Our Prime Minister, Mr. Zoran Zaev, requested early parliamentary elections that will enable the citizens to decide on how to further European integration. The elections will be held on 12 April 2020, seven months before the regular date.
North Macedonia, as well as the other countries from the western Balkans, has no choice other than to continue on its way to full membership of the European Union. We are aware that we have to implement the necessary reforms to comply fully with European values and reach European standards but the latest conclusions of the European Union leave North Macedonia in great uncertainty in respect of whether they represent a withdrawal of the European perspective regarding EU membership for the western Balkan countries. This would not only be an historical mistake but also a strategic failure of the European Union.
We are aware that today the EU enlargement does not resonate well within some EU member states. We should work very hard on changing this perception of our region in the EU. If this can be achieved through reforming the methodology of the current accession process and merit-based evaluation for every candidate separately, then North Macedonia fully supports such an approach. The full membership in the European Union is the goal of my country that cannot be replaced by just "special" relations with the EU, or any other country outside the EU.
There is no alternative for us on our European path. The results of the Irish membership in the EU are the best recommendation for us never to give up efforts for reaching this goal, no matter how long and difficult this process will be. At first, however, the process of accession negotiation has to start. Better sooner than later.
Gabhaim buíochas leis an gCathaoirleach. I thank both of our guests for joining us and for their very enlightening and indeed frank presentations. I will start in reverse order.
The Republic of North Macedonia is a country that I have some familiarity with. In a previous life I was on the joint consultative committee with the then former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, FYROM, with the European Committee of the Regions. I had the opportunity to visit Skopje and beyond on a number of occasions. I must echo the absolute disappointment of the Irish Government that we have not proceeded to the next stage. That is something that is being reflected by our Minister and our Taoiseach at European Council level and will be repeated next week at the General Affairs Council meeting. I place, however, perhaps some misplaced and some actual hope in the meeting in Zagreb next year and the commitment of the incoming Croatian Presidency to further this, which is the path we need to go down. It is very important that ongoing talks, both with North Macedonia and Albania are moved separate to any review. They should not become one another. We can review the enlargement policy separate to the actual starting of the accession negotiations. I wish North Macedonia well and believe there is great potential for increased bilateral co-operation between Ireland and North Macedonia. I look forward to the day when there are embassies in both countries and a much greater interaction.
To address the Turkish ambassador, I have been a long-time supporter of Turkish accession to the European Union, as have the Irish Government and most Irish political parties. I will be quite frank, as the ambassador was in his address, that it is becoming more difficult to be that supporter at a European level. I appreciate that there are colleagues in member states who are always, naturally, ill-disposed to this idea. It then becomes an issue in internal political campaigns. While the ambassador cites certain criticism of recent actions as being unfair, he must appreciate that from a European point of view, it is not always possible to give the benefit of the doubt.
If we look at what the European Union believes in, the fundamental values of the rule of law, democracy, and the rights of humans, we therefore have serious concerns at what is going on in Turkey. That does not have to be an unfair criticism until it is fully explained.
The recent activities on the border with Syria and Kurdistan are also extremely worrying.
I agree with the ambassador that we need to increase the level of communication because, all having been said, I still very much believe that a Turkey within the European Union is a much better prospect for everyone, not just in the EU and in Turkey, but for the wider region. Looking at the history of Turkey and the secular vision laid out by Ataturk, I have to ask whether Turkey is really still serious about joining the EU. Turkey says it is , but I would question its actions, especially in recent months.
The more we ask these questions of each other - and I ask the same question of other colleagues - as to whether they are serious about these accession talks. Ireland is serious. As a member of the governing party, Ireland within the EU will always push for Turkish accession. It would be much more helpful if it was a bit easier to do this at a European level.
Regarding North Macedonia, like the previous speaker, we were very disappointed with the outcome of the October European Council meeting. Minister of State with responsibility for European affairs, Deputy Helen McEntee stated that in this room at this meeting and we were very supportive of this candidacy. Again, like the previous speaker, we hope that the General Affairs Council meeting on 19 November will kickstart the process again with, ultimately, the EU-western Balkans summit in May 2020. All of us would agree that were North Macedonia in the European Union, it would be a great source of stability for the region, for the western Balkans and so forth. I am sure that the chargé d'affairesis aware that he has our full support.
I note the Turkish ambassador's comments in his conclusion which stated that:
Turkey considers itself as part of the European family. We are a long standing member of all European structures. Against all odds, becoming a full member of the EU, and I emphasize full member, is still our strategic objective.
I also have to question that statement. There are concerns about Turkey's Government and its authoritarian style at this time. There are major issues of concern issues on the rule of law and the freedom of the press. We have to question Turkey's commitment to joining the European Union and to subscribing to its values. I appreciate that this is a long process that started some time ago.
What is the domestic support for the European Union in Turkey? I am sure that opinion is divided on the issue. Is Turkey a genuine European country? I am aware that Europe and the Middle East straddles its border. Can the ambassador categorically say that Turkey is of the European family, and is a European country at heart?
On the EU-Turkey deal regarding Syrian refugees, could the ambassador comment on how he considers that is working? Does it need to be reconsidered and does he think it is in the interests of both Turkey and the EU? I am interested in the Turkish Government's perspective on that particular deal as it is panning out.
It would certainly be in everybody's interest, as the ambassador has stated, for Turkey to be in the EU for stability in the region and for peace and progress generally. Subject to those few queries, Ireland is very supportive of this long-term goal, provided Turkey meets all of the different criteria.
There is concern in this country on the military activity on the border, as mentioned by Senator Richmond, and the plight of the Kurds. What is the Turkish Government's view and what are its aims and objectives are in this regard? From an Irish perspective, we would take a humanitarian view of the situation and be very concerned about the plight of refugees. I would welcome the ambassador's comments on these matters, please.
Like everyone else, I welcome our guests and thank them for their presentations.
I have been around for a while and was a member of this committee when Turkey first made its application for membership of the European Union. There was a lot of hope and anticipation at that particular time. The aspirations faded somewhat in the meantime.
Similarly, on North Macedonia, I would have a strong opinion on the strategic importance of the western Balkans for a great number of reasons - geopolitical, historical, and the need to ensure there is recognition in the western Balkans that the European Union is a friend, and in particular, a friend in need. We need to look at it in that light.
There are those across Europe who would say that we should consolidate Europe. We should consolidate all of the time. That is part of the business of nations coming and growing together. We should also, however, be alert at all times to those who have an aspiration to join the union. If we close those doors or allow them to fade, then interest fades, particularly among the applicant and the potential applicant countries. That is not good for the European Union or for the applicant countries or for the geopolitical situation globally.
I, like my colleagues, have concerns about the issues raised by the European Union in respect of Turkey. That is not being critical but being objective. I acknowledge the work done by Turkey with refugees from the adjoining wars over the past number of years, very often, when others were slow to respond.
That must be recognised.
We need to recognise the need for applicant countries to be in line with the acquis communautairewithin the European Union. If a huge difference arises during the course of the negotiations, it does not make for an early or satisfactory conclusion. Colleagues have referred to the rule of law, humanitarian issues and the fact that there are similar issues in various parts of the European Union. Given the size of Turkey and its position alongside the European Union, virtually on its doorstep, it is important that there is a good relationship between the two. In the future we will need to nurture those discussions taking place, help them along and do everything possible to ensure we do not drift further apart. The danger in drifting further apart is that a different association will be formed, which will be to the advantage neither of applicant countries nor of the European Union and an opportunity will be missed. It is important for all countries, developed and developing, to recognise that we all have a contribution to make to the creation of a situation that is amenable to the objectives, one of which should and must be Turkish membership of the European Union in the shorter rather than the longer term.
Every generation has its challenges. How we will deal with them remains to be seen. In the first half of the 20th century, Europe had several challenges. Unfortunately, there was a vast cost to the resolution of those challenges, both within Europe and globally, and there was a loss of life as a result of the failure to address issues that should and could have been addressed by negotiations but were not. We must learn from those lessons, move on from here and try to ensure that the same mistakes are not made again.
Turkey is a large country with a large population and influence and must be treated as such by the European Union. Turkey can have a truly stabilising effect in the region. Sadly, the smaller countries in the western Balkans have had a tragic history as well and paid a huge price. They were minions in the issues that took place in their vicinity, over the heads, without discussion with them and over which they had no control. The danger is that we might miss the opportunity to bring them closer, welcome them towards the European Union and encourage them. If we play our cards right on both sides of that debate, I think we will be able to do well. We have the ability to do well and to bring everybody together. If we decide we want to become obstinate, go in different directions and assume a position of playing hard to get, I think there will be a disaster and, given the tendencies in some quarters of the globe at present, I would fear for peace and stability in the future, unless there is a move towards the kind of thing we have been talking about.
The witnesses are very welcome. Both talked about roads. One was a bumpy one and the other a long, narrow one. We should probably try to concentrate on roadmaps.
I will start with the chargé d'affaires at the Embassy of the Republic of North Macedonia. I congratulate him on his country's successful ending of the name dispute it had with Greece. I know that negotiations were sensitive and difficult but both Governments approached them positively and I am delighted the matter was successfully resolved through dialogue and discussion. North Macedonia received official candidate status, as Mr. Kahil said, in 2005, and progress since then has been delayed because of the dispute with Greece. At the most recent European Council meeting, Emmanuel Macron used France's veto to prevent North Macedonia from being given a start date for EU accession talks. I am sure Mr. Kahil and his countrymen are extremely upset and concerned by this recent development. Many of us are critical of the EU, particularly in its current format and many of us want to see major reforms of it but my party does not oppose starting these accession talks. They should happen. Has North Macedonia's President met the French President to discuss his concerns and perhaps work out a pathway forward? Linked to that, I understand that North Macedonia's President has now called for early elections and that they will take place in April 2020, probably around the same time we will have ours but earlier than previously planned. Does Mr. Kahil believe that this is because of the EU accession talks setback? Will the matter be a significant part of the election campaign or are other domestic issues at play?
As for the situation in Turkey, in my role as a parliamentarian, I chair the Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement. As part of that, I have met civil society representatives, people from Turkey, politicians and others in looking at the Irish peace process and learning whatever lessons might be learned from things that worked in Ireland. People from all over the world come to Ireland to talk to us about that. As part of this work we have argued clearly that in situations in which there does not seem to be any clear way out except repression or a military route, sometimes discussions and talks can lead to a breakthrough. I know there were discussions at one time between the Turkish President and Abdullah Öcalan and that those talks broke down and so on. The ambassador started off talking about the difficulty and the long road Turkey has been on, but I think many of us looking at the situation in Turkey would argue that it is probably further away from EU accession now than it was at the start of that journey. I say that respectfully on the basis of the information we have coming out of Turkey, including on the tens of thousands of political prisoners. The ambassador mentioned the changes to the courts and so on but in recent days, I have seen reports from Amnesty International raising two cases of two journalists who had been detained indefinitely and ended up being released and then rearrested to face similar charges. We know that people from all walks of life have been arrested in Turkey - judges, military personnel, politicians - and that mayors and MPs are now being arrested. The charge of terrorism has become so broad and ambiguous that it is a catch-all term used against almost all dissenting voices. I note that the ambassador says there have been changes in respect of strengthening freedom of expression and the press, but people following what is happening in that part of the world do not see that or get a sense that it is happening. In fact, we think things are getting worse rather than better.
The invasion of Syria was mentioned. It has led to more conflict. I refer to the use of mercenaries in part of the invasion and the activities of those mercenaries. Again, everyone around the world who is looking at this is asking how a country can align itself with this element as part of an invasion.
In the past week, four democratically elected mayors in the Kurdish majority areas were removed from office and replaced by government-imposed appointees. I am pointing out the significant challenges we face. European leaders and people from various backgrounds want peace and stability in Turkey and in the region but we believe the narrow road Turkey is on will lead to further conflict. That is my big concern. If people look at what is happening in Turkey, such as the removal of democratically elected representatives, that has led to further conflict. We can learn lessons from Ireland in terms of what is happening in prisons such as making political prisoners wear uniforms, forcing them to stand for the Turkish national anthem and prisoners not being given medical supports, including those who are critically ill. I am not comfortable with the narrative. I do not want to get into a row with the ambassador. His presentation was reasonable but it does not reflect what I believe is the reality of what is happening in Turkey and the wider region. I apologise, but I think that politicians must sit down with people who have been through conflict and consider other ways forward. Perhaps that is a positive way the Irish people could support Turkey.
I do not agree with countries joining NATO. That merely adds further militarisation. We have a different view. We are not a member of NATO. We consider dialogue, discussion and inclusive talks to be the way forward. I am sorry for that rant. I know there were not many questions but they are implicit in what I have said.
I welcome both witnesses. I cannot take from anything my colleagues have said so far. I do not wish to go back over the same ground. I will start with Turkey if I may. I compliment the ambassador on his use of the Irish language and his wonderful singing of "Amhrán na bhFiann" at his national day. It shows a true desire to become integrated into Irish society while he is here.
The west has not been good to the east, in particular the Middle East. We have set up demigods and then we have sought to tear them down again. When I say "we" I am talking about western military powers outside of Ireland. They have moved into countries and then sought to tear down the people they have set up. They have interfered in countries right across the Middle East and, to a large degree, some of our friends are responsible for the instability that now exists throughout the Middle East. There are many questions to be answered. Even right now in Turkey we see that the Americans said they were pulling out and left disaster behind them. They left the state far more unstable than it was. I do not for one moment agree that the incursions into Kurdish areas in Syria are acceptable. I believe that Turkey has a right to protect its borders but I do not believe that right extends to moving into a foreign country and taking hold of land to protect itself. I just do not accept that under any circumstances. That is a question Turkey is going to have to answer soon. I agree with what Deputy Crowe has just set out. There are significant questions to be answered and Turkey will have to deal with them.
On the other side of the equation, we were happy in the EU to dump as many migrants, refugees and anything else one cares to think of into Turkey, at a financial gain for Turkey, or if one wants, we pawned off our problems on Turkey, gave it a load of money and said it should look after all those people as we do not want them. When one does that, one creates bitterness and an unacceptable approach to what is now an international problem with respect to migration and refugees. The two terms are used interchangeably. We must sit down as nation states and decide what is a migrant and what is a refugee. As a country that was famous for its migration as far back as history can go, we are in no position to judge anybody's rules on migration, other than the fact that we should be open to migration and we should try to manage it, whether it is economic or for whatever other reason. I take my hat off to Turkey for taking on the problems of Europe. To a certain degree, Turkey has been thrown under the bus for helping Europe.
The ambassador and I spoke earlier about Islam. Turkey is an Islamic state. There is a job of work in this regard and Turkey is ideally placed to do it. Islam is not fundamentalism, as in the ISIS view of Islam. Islam is a peace-loving religion. People have views as to how strong or weak the religious rules should be. We in ireland cannot throw any stones either because from the foundation of the State we danced to the tune of one particular religion for many years. We were dominated by it. Legislation had to be presented to the Archbishop of Dublin before it could be implemented. The problem in the west now is that Islam has been demonised and, by so doing, we have demonised countries that have a leaning towards Islam. That is worrying because I wonder if our colleagues throughout the EU that should be moving towards accession talks with various countries in that part of the world are looking through glasses that see Islam and fear rather than how accession could bring greater stability to the region. There is a job of work to be done in that regard. I say that as a sceptic with respect to enlargement. My training in economics tells me that we must be careful about the diminishing marginal returns from enlargement.
Brexit has opened a number of controversial doors throughout Europe. Some countries are moving towards nationalism, borders, barbed wire, checkpoints and to the far right. We see the rise of the right in many nations around Europe. However, other countries are taking strong views on religion and colour. Those are all very dangerous issues. They hark back to a time in Europe we all want to forget so I am concerned about that. Like Deputy Crowe, I am not asking questions. What I am trying to do is articulate the issues as I see them throughout Europe.
North Macedonia has gone through hell and high water to change the name of the country to try to appease its next door neighbour. I am sure citizens are asking what else they have to do and what will be the next demand. As Europeans, we have to be aware that one can only push people so far. I have never seen the European project as a peace project. The Balkans worry me, not necessarily North Macedonia. There is a rush to accede to the EU in the hope that it will underpin a sensitive and troublesome peace. I wonder how that sits with North Macedonia at the moment.
Turkey, in particular, must start making sounds that people in Europe want to hear. I do not for one moment suggest that Europe does not have to move its position as well. I would welcome accession if it could be shown not to bring diminishing marginal returns economically, but also on the social and civic side that would question the mores we hold so dear in Europe.
I do not want to see those eroded because we are moving to somewhere else. I visited Turkey some years ago. We have a relationship with Turkey that dates right back to Gallipoli and all that went on there. We have strong ties with Turkey. Whether we go to Turkey to visit our dead, or on holidays, we are always welcomed. I want to see Turkey move but I am concerned about the current regime and people being locked up, as mentioned by Deputy Crowe. I cannot understand why people fear the Kurds in that part of the world. Turkey must start getting its house in order or the windy, bumpy road it is on will reach a cul-de-sac very quickly, which would be bad for Europe not just Turkey.
Would the ambassador like to comment first? He is free to reply in whatever way he likes but he will know that the committee is focusing on enlargement and that type of issue today. I urge him to not stray from such matters, if at all possible.
H.E. Mr. Levent Murat Burhan:
No, I will try to give succinct answers. Several distinguished members have mentioned the current situation in Syria. As I have said to the people who I met over the last couple of weeks, the reason Turkey had to intervene in Syria was because of an existential national security threat. To us, the situation in Syria is what Brexit is for Ireland and the EU.
Some members said Turkey was against the Kurds. I respectfully disagree because I cannot accept that we are against the Kurds. One must differentiate between the Kurds and PKK, the terrorist organisation. YPG is an offshoot of the PKK in Syria and I have provided some information in that context. It is the same terrorist organisation and does not represent any segment of Syrian society or Syrian Kurds. The YPG forces control areas in northern Syria but 350,000 Syrian Kurds took refuge in Turkey. Why?
We want to protect the territorial integrity of Syria, and we always state that at all levels but that is not the same for YPG, which is a terrorist organisation. I have provided a list of attacks. More than 300 rocket and mortar attacks have been launched across the border into the Turkish side and caused civilian casualties during the last two years. In addition, our friends and allies provide arms and ammunition to the YPG forces because they said they would fight Daesh. However, the same arms and ammunition have been smuggled through tunnels into the Turkish side and given to the PKK whose members are fighting Turkish security forces and caused a lot of deaths in the civilian population.
Deputy Crowe mentioned Abdullah Öcalan. He is the leader of the PKK organisation and YPG is part of the umbrella organisation of Koma Civakên Kurdistaný, KCK, whose members also recognise Abdullah Öcalan as their leader. The organisations use different names but they are all part of the same terrorist organisation and we should not consider them as representing Kurdish people anywhere in the region.
We have excellent relations with the northern Iraqi-Kurdish administration. I have been in Erbil, for example. A lot of trade takes place and many Turkish companies are active in the region. If one checks the figures about Turkey on the Internet one will see that the ruling party gets more votes in the south-eastern region and provinces than the party that claims to represent Kurdish people. One cannot say that Turkey is against the Kurds, rather one must remember that Turkey is fighting a terrorist organisation. My Government and State have an obligation and responsibility to protect its own citizens. Many terrorist attacks came from the Syrian side so we had to intervene. We have intervened twice before. First, it was Operation Euphrates Shield, which was completely against the Daesh forces. Our allies claimed that YPG forces were fighting Daesh. However, during the Iraq co-operation the BBC discovered the special deals that the YPG terrorists made with the Daesh terrorists and how they let them go. The same thing happened during the recent operation. The YPG opened a prison and set all of the Daesh prisoners free. Today, the Minister of the Interior in Turkey released a statement that one of the important guys of Daesh was caught in Syria. The YPG has a completely different agenda and does not support the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Syria. In fact, we do.
In terms of YPG, international reports have been mentioned. I have provided reports by Amnesty International and other international organisations on how the YPG violated human rights and treated the local people, which led to 360,000 people seeking refuge in Turkey. The YPG oppressed and intimidated the local population, particularly Syrian Kurds. The YPG forcibly displaced them, and forcibly recruited child soldiers and underage soldiers.
We have to make the differentiation that there was really a national security threat which is accepted also as a legitimate security concern by the US, Russia and in some EU documents these legitimate security concerns are recognised. As is the case with the previous two interventions we tried to establish stability in that region. First we tried to stop this security threat on the Turkish side and then establish stability and security there to lay the ground for the safe and voluntary return of displaced Syrians. That has been the case in the western part of Syria, next to the borders with the Afrin region. For example, 365,000 were returned to the Afrin region according to the latest figures. This region is a majority Syrian-Kurdish populated area and now a local administration has been set up there composed of a Syrian-Kurdish majority. The chair of that local administration is also a Syrian Kurd. We have no secret, hidden agenda vis-à-visSyria. Our aim is to prevent any kind of terror threat towards Turkish national security; to enforce Syria's territorial integrity and unity; to free local people from YPG's operation; and to lay the ground for the safe and voluntary return of Syrians. When I say safe and voluntary they have, as I said, returned 365,000 to Afrin. They returned voluntarily to their original places of residence. We are not forcing anybody. We are working with the UN especially with UN in order to co-ordinate this in accordance with international humanitarian laws.
In this Afrin region, which has a majority Syrian-Kurd population, we built three new hospitals, three more were repaired and equipped by us and now 2,000 Syrians are employed in these six hospitals. We have built and refurbished schools for 330,000 students in the Afrin region. We have repaired the Mydanki dam providing running water; infrastructure has been repaired; electricity is provided in the Azaz region with generators provided by us; and the Jarablus region receives electricity from Turkey. We opened a new border from Afrin to Turkey in order to facilitate trade routes and supported the agriculture there. We do not have any secret agendas vis-à-visSyria. We just want Syria to have stability, security and peace because it is also in our interests to have stability and security along our borders. This has not been the case so far. If we look to the future of Syria we want the future of Syria to be decided by a Syrian-led and Syrian-owned political process based on UN Security Council Resolution 2254. The constitutional committee has been established and we have contributed to the formation of this committee and hope that it will finalise its work as quickly as possible. We want the return of the Syrian refugees but this return should be safe, dignified, voluntary and to their original places of residence and should be co-ordinated with the UN. We are ready to help them to improve; as I said there is a humanitarian infrastructure and we are giving the same kind of humanitarian aid liberated by the Turkish peacekeeping operation in the eastern part of the Turkish Syria border. We have provided assistance, together with our Red Crescent and AFAD which is the national agency for natural disasters and emergencies and we are co-operating with the UN Disaster Risk Reduction, UNDRR, and other UN-related non-governmental organisations.
The ambassador has given us information that we will circulate to members after the meeting. He will appreciate that we do not want to stray into the role of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade. The ambassador has given us a great deal to think about.
H.E. Mr. Levent Murat Burhan:
This is about Syria, what we want there and why we intervened there. The differentiation between Kurds and the PKK is very important for us.
We know that we have to improve in the context of human rights but in October a new judicial reform package was passed and the effects were seen on the ground in that some detainees were released by the decision of the courts. We are aware of our obligations under international law and we pay full respect to the rule of law, and the principle of necessity and proportionality also which we have to take into account.
It was mentioned that lots of people were dismissed following the coup two and a half years ago.
The legal remedies are very much in place. Thanks to these, for example, 43,000 employees were reinstated and 360 private entities were allowed to function again. Journalists in prison were mentioned. In fact, they are not detained because of their journalistic work but due to their acts in support of and links to terrorist organisations. As I said, this is decided by the independent courts, which take their decisions on the merits of each case. As I said also, legal remedies exist and individuals can appeal to a higher court. Indeed, we have recognised the individual right of appeal to the constitutional court and, as I said in my speech, even to the European Court of Human Rights. Those rights are available.
The mayors who were dismissed were mentioned. This was because of concern about their use of municipality resources to support terrorist activities instead of providing basic services to the local population. They put into practice some methods, like a co-chair method, whereby they convey their mayoral authority to co-mayors who not elected by the voters in the elections. This has no basis in Turkish legislation. These co-mayors illegally exercise all the administrative powers of the elected mayor. Most of the cases are because of this, and the mayors in question are dismissed as an interim measure until investigative proceedings are finalised. Everything is done according to our constitution and our laws, and legal remedies exist.
Some MPs were mentioned. I remind the committee that 154 MPs had their immunity lifted. That was decided by the Turkish Parliament, and these MPs included people from the ruling party and from the main opposition party. They were asked by the public prosecutors to give their depositions, which most of them did. Even the leader of the main opposition party gave his deposition, but some MPs did not. They said that they did not recognise the authority of these courts or the public prosecutors. That is why they were detained. That is a fact.
Deputy Crowe mentioned some prisoners not being given food, medical support and so on. I respectfully disagree with him. We cannot accept such claims. We are party to the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment and the UN Committee Against Torture. They have monitoring mechanisms and they come to Turkey to monitor the situation, including all the prisons and so on, and then they publish their report. That is not to say we are perfect. Of course, we can improve. There is always room for improvement and because of that, as I said, we recently initiated this new judicial reform package. However, we would like our allies and partners to understand that we are fighting on multiple fronts. We are fighting against Daesh, we are fighting against the PKK and we are fighting against this group, which has staged this-----
H.E. Mr. Levent Murat Burhan:
To conclude, as I said in my presentation, we consider ourselves part of the European family. If one thinks about the history of Europe, one cannot write it or rewrite it without Turkey. The Balkans are very close to us. It is a neighbouring region. We expect all Balkan countries, including, of course, North Macedonia and Albania, to become full members. We believe that we will be able to overcome our difficulties, which we are going through in this delicate period. In order to overcome these present difficulties, we need more dialogue. We need more channels of communication to be opened, and to remain open. We do not want the opposite. We need also the co-operation of the other side in this respect, but our final aim is to become a full member of the EU. This is our strategic objective.
I was asked what the opinion of Turkish people is. The people were asked if they thought becoming a member of the EU would be good for Turkey. The answer was 75% to 80% "Yes". If the question was whether the people believed Turkey would become a member of the EU, the percentage would go down.
Mr. Jasmin Kahil:
I will be very short. In regard to Turkey, I was lucky to spend three years of my diplomatic life there, and ten years ago the situation was not the same and the relations between the EU and Turkey were far better. I was going to the Ministry for European Union Affairs and to Mr. Egemen Ba for advice. At that time, ten years ago, it really seemed that Turkey was very close to the EU and it was opening chapters but something changed in the meantime.
In regard to North Macedonia, we have had three or four very bleak days since our independence. A commission was set up by the European Union in January 1992. It was chaired by Mr. Badinter and Mr. Herzog was a member. This commission had to say which republics of the former Yugoslavia should be independent states. On 15 January 1992, a decision was made that it would be only Slovenia and Macedonia. On the same night, we were waiting on recognition from half of Europe. Nothing happened except the decision to include Bulgaria and then a few weeks later Turkey. All of a sudden, we were aware that there was a big problem. That was a big disappointment.
The second disappointment one was in June 1992, when the EU made the unbelievable decision that we could not be an independent state unless we change the name without Macedonia. That was completely unacceptable and a big disappointment. The third disappointment was in April 2008 at the Bucharest NATO summit. President Bush said that from the next day, Albania, Croatia and Macedonia would be NATO members.
We did not become a member of NATO because our membership was vetoed. Our Greek friends stated that they did not veto our membership. We took a case to the International Court of Justice in the Hague because an agreement between Greece and North Macedonia dating from 1995 states that each country may not veto the other side's entering an international organisation on the basis of the name issue. It was obvious that was the reason for Greece doing so. We won our case, with the court deciding in our favour on a unanimous basis, 15:0. However, nothing happened because NATO stated that it was a political decision. The third big disappointment was in April 2008. The failure last month to begin talks on our membership of the EU was a fourth big disappointment. We are managing the situation. We anticipate that we will complete our accession to NATO before next April. We hope to become a member of the EU.
There was a question on possible meetings between President Pendarovski and President Macron of France. The presidents met yesterday. The North Macedonian President explained our situation and why we should start negotiations. President Macron insisted on the new criteria and referred to March. He mentioned that he sent proposals regarding the new criteria for the accession process to other member states. We hope it will be concluded before the EU-Western Balkans summit in Zagreb but for many years, we have hoped that it would be concluded at the next EU summit.
The elections in April were precipitated by the decision of the EU. In 2008, after the debacle at the NATO summit in Bucharest, the former Prime Minister called an early election and won that election. The current Prime Minister decided to do likewise. He had stated that if we did not get the promised date for starting the negotiations, he would call an election, and he did so. One of the main issues in the election will be whether it was a mistake to change the name of the country and the impact of that decision on our accession. There are five months until the election.
There was a very good question regarding whether my country wishes to become a member of the EU for reasons of stability, peace and so on. It may be the case that it wishes to become a member of NATO for those reasons, but they are not our reasons for wishing to join the EU. We are Europeans. We were part of Yugoslavia which, although it was a communist country, was quite liberal compared to other such countries. We were raised on British humour and rock music. I listened to U2, Thin Lizzy and many other bands and came here to see them. We did not need a visa to come here at the time, unlike the current situation. Even though I have a diplomatic passport and I am a chargé d'affaires in the UK, I need a visa to come here. People in my country were raised on western culture. My country, the former Republic of Macedonia, now North Macedonia, has never been under the influence of any other country, as members will understand. We were always western-oriented. We continue to believe that we are part of Europe. The Eurovision Song Contest is as popular in my country as it is in Ireland. We nearly won it this year. In the 1990s, Ireland was the most successful country in the contest. We North Macedonians are Europeans and that is the main reason our country should be a member of the EU. We will contribute to the EU. It is not just about maintaining peace. We are Europeans. My country was influenced by no country other than those with western values, rock music, literature and so on. Yugoslavia was that kind of country, unlike certain other countries in the region at the time.