28 April 2013 /YONCA POYRAZ DOĞAN, İSTANBUL – Turkey has taken a major step by entering into a settlement process with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is listed as a terrorist organization by Turkey, the European Union and the United States, in regards to solving its Kurdish problem, according to this week’s guest for Monday Talk.
“One of the things that has struck me about the debate in Turkey is to see the way in which the language has changed. When Mr. Öcalan is referred to now in Turkey, he is no longer referred to as the ‘baby killer Öcalan’ or ‘head of terrorists.’ All of the derogatory comments which were always associated with Öcalan’s name have gone. He is now referred to in a neutral way as Mr. Öcalan,” said Sir Graham Watson, Liberal Democrat member of the European Parliament for South West England and Gibraltar.
At the end of last year the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government launched negotiations with PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan, who is incarcerated on İmralı Island in the Sea of Marmara. In the past months, Öcalan, who despite his 14 years in prison still wields enormous clout over the PKK as well as millions of nationalist Kurds in Turkey, called on the PKK to lay down their arms and leave Turkey. The withdrawal of PKK’s armed forces from Turkey is expected to begin on May 8.
Answering our questions in İstanbul on a wide range of topics from the EU’s financial crisis to Turkey’s presidential system debate, he elaborated on the issues.
You have been observing Turkey for a long time. I’d like to first ask your opinion about how your observations have changed over the years.
I would start by saying I do not consider myself in any way an expert on Turkey; I follow developments with interest in Turkey because I believe that since the change of the government and the beginning of the century, there has been tremendous social progress and I’m impressed to see the development in simply the infrastructure of schools, the hospitals, etc. I see a modern Turkey emerging. I am seeing a Turkey which is more confident in itself as a country with an important economy, as a country with a history and culture; it is more widely recognized. The country feels more confident under the current more liberal approach than it did as a strictly enforced secular state. I welcome that because I think it is part of Turkey’s self-expression, and human civilization always benefits from freedom of expression in this way. I regret the fact that during the last 10 years, the mood in the European Union has partly to do with the political move from center-left governments to center-right governments as the EU has rather turned against Turkey. And for a long time, Germany and France, together with some other countries, were trying to keep Turkey at a distance from the European Union. There are just very first signs that may be changing, but it did Europe a lot of damage because it presented the idea of Europe as a white Christian club, which we have never been throughout our history, and we will certainly never prosper if we are. We have to recognize the contribution of the great Caliphates of Cordoba and Constantinople to the development of European cultural, scientific and political thought.
Now Turkey is more confident in itself, do you think it could have been more determined to join the EU?
I think that it can. Turkey plays an important role in many ways. Firstly, it is a member of NATO. It’s a NATO power with an interest in collective security in the region. Secondly, as an economic powerhouse and center for development of so many of the countries around it, not least the former Soviet states along the Silk Road towards China, but also as a political force which the European Union needs to engage more fully. I think the climate of recognition of the need for that engagement has swung substantially towards Turkey within the European institutions over the last two years, and perhaps it is beginning to turn within the Council of Ministers that represents the heads of our state and government.
‘Turkey can launch Cyprus initiative’
What is the major reason for that swing? Is it just about Turkey’s financial success versus the EU’s problems? Are there other issues, too?
The financial situation is certainly a part of it. The European Union’s economic weakness has really changed its look at the world. It has also changed because of the change in Syria as a reminder of Turkey’s importance as a NATO ally. There are other agendas as well that make us closer to Turkey, for example, the recognition of our dangerous level of dependence on Russia for gas. Turkey, both as a transit country for supplies of gas and as a partner for development of renewable energy, is extremely important.
Even if Turkey uses all this self-confidence as a gate-opener to enter the EU, do you think the EU would be ready to welcome Turkey despite some recognition about the importance of Turkey?
I think the evidence for it is the renewed willingness of the heads of state and government to open new chapters in negotiations with Turkey. The opening of the energy chapter has been very important. There is now a lot of discussion about opening the chapter on justice and home affairs. The recent signing of the readmission agreement between Turkey and the EU has been important in this respect. There is altogether recognition that Turkey is an important partner and the more we can cooperate within a structured framework, the more successful that partnership can be.
There is this unsolved issue of Cyprus. Do you think a solution is a dream or not?
I am still hopeful; I am a liberal so I am an optimist by nature. We have learned many things about Cyprus in recent months of which we were previously not fully aware, including the relationship between banks on the island and banks on mainland Greece. The position of Cyprus at the moment is one where we recognize that many, many countries can help. I would like to see Turkey seizing the opportunity represented by the relative weakness of Greece and the almost total weakness of Cyprus to launch a trilateral initiative with both Athens and the island to develop together stronger economic structures, energy cooperation in exchange for lasting political settlement on the island.
‘Engaging with PKK politically, most important step’
As you know, Ankara is advocating separation on Cyprus these days…
I regret that. I recognize that there is a limit to the number of battles that any prime minister can fight at any one point. I recognize that the prime minister is putting a lot of his attention toward sorting out the situation with the Kurds. This is something that I very much welcome. I admire both his courage and political acumen in dealing with Mr. Öcalan, and I wish him success in finding a lasting solution. But I hope that once that has been achieved, he will turn his attention much more seriously towards Cyprus because I still see Cyprus as the fundamental blockage in relations between Turkey and the European Union.
In regards to the Kurdish issue, would you imagine six months ago that Ankara would be engaged in such a settlement process?
Not at all, and rather like the process in which the United Kingdom went through in Northern Ireland, the political leadership here in Turkey has seized the moment, decided to engage politically with the PKK rather than simply dismissing them as terrorists. That is the most important step to a lasting solution.
When you look at the peace process in the United Kingdom, do you find similarities in regards to how the process has been handled in Turkey?
There are many similarities. Essentially, the British government’s decision to treat the issue as a political issue rather than a security issue which allowed us to make the breakthrough in Northern Ireland, and the result with the constitutional changes that flowed from the peace settlement was one which created greater freedom but also greater security at the same time for all of the people of the Ireland and the United Kingdom. And I hope the same will be possible in dealing with the Kurds and the PKK.
‘Presidential system needs checks, balances’
Apparently, Ankara has been upset about a phrase used by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) in a report as PKK members were called as “activists” not “terrorists” even though the PKK is listed as a terrorist organization by Turkey, the EU and the United States. What is your take on the issue?
The language here is important. One of the things that has struck me about the debate in Turkey is to see the way in which the language has changed. When Mr. Öcalan is referred to now in Turkey, he is no longer referred to as the “baby killer Öcalan” or “head of terrorists.” All of the derogatory comments which were always associated with Öcalan’s name have gone. He is now referred to in a neutral way as Mr. Öcalan. The assembly’s reference seems to reflect changes that are taking place in Turkey. That is helpful; it’s a recognition that all the support for him was based on his willingness to take up political grievances and a recognition that we need to deal with political grievances if we create a lasting peace. I think it was Einstein who said that peace can never be imposed by force, it can only be achieved by understanding. That seems to be the path that Turkey has chosen.
In relation to the settlement process regarding the Kurdish issue, there is also an ongoing debate in Turkey about making a new constitution and having a presidential system replace the current parliamentary system, and a lot of people seem to worry about the possibility of a change of system. What could you tell us from your experience about the defects of presidential systems?
I would share some of these concerns. There is increasingly a reflection in the European Union on what is the best type of system. And generally, the system that Germany or Italy has where you have an elected president with limited constitutional power is considered to be better than the situation in France where you have a president with a very substantial degree of power. There is a reflection which suggests if you are going to go for a presidential system, you need to be very careful to get all of the right checks and balances there, and to have a completely independent judiciary. The system like the American one is a rather better model than the French system. It was very wise of the head of the Turkish Constitutional Court to suggest that you should not have only a vote in Parliament but also a referendum before changing the existing system so there can be a proper public debate.
‘Turkish people should keep pressuring gov’t for reforms’
And your ideas about the new constitution debate?
There are many challenges faced in Turkey, but there are many opportunities, too. The opportunity with the PKK is something to celebrate and offers opportunities in Turkey for a new constitution which can consolidate people’s rights. I hope that Turkey’s people will put pressure on the government, which has now been in office for rather a long time and perhaps running out of steam, but the people of Turkey will keep up the pressure on the government to keep on with the process of reform, with modernizing the country. I hope Mr. Erdoğan will show himself to be a truly post-modern prime minister. And perhaps lead the way forward in some of the technologies of the future. The European Union is very interested in cooperation with Turkey in exploiting renewable energies, for example, moving away from fossil fuels so that we can fight climate change and hand down our children and grandchildren a planet which will still sustain human life. Turkey could be a leader in this as it has proven to be a leader in other fields, too.