Minister of State for Europe Michael Roth was in Turkey from 20 to 22 March. He held numerous talks in Istanbul and Ankara with representatives of the government, opposition and civil society, plus a number of journalists and students. He also attended another meeting with his opposite number in Turkey, Minister for EU Affairs Volkan Bozkır. They discussed relations between the EU and Turkey and their current relevance to the matter of refugees.
Following the latest attacks by the terrorist organisation IS in Ankara, Istanbul and Brussels, Roth and Bozkır began by expressing their sympathy with the victims and their families. They emphasised the need for joint action at the international level in the fight against terrorism. Minister of State Roth made the following statement:
The Turkish Government has a right and a duty to take action to protect its citizens from threats, including the terrible attacks perpetrated in Turkey by the PKK. This must be done with proportionality, however – and the main priority should be to work on a political settlement to the Kurdish conflict at the negotiating table.
Realising the refugee action plan
Just a few days after the EU and Turkey reached their agreement on the matter of refugees, Roth spoke to Bozkır and Muhammed Murtaza Yeti, the Turkish Government’s coordinator for refugees, about the upcoming implementation of the action plan. Roth commented as follows:
A lasting solution to the refugee issue will only work if Turkey is on board. But Turkey needs us just as we need Turkey. Both sides now need to deliver as quickly as possible in order to make what we agreed a reality. We need to acknowledge that Turkey, with a population just shy of 80 million, has so far taken in 2.7 million refugees. I also very much welcome the initial steps the Turkish Government has taken to, for example, open up the labour market to refugees, as these things give people the prospect of a new home.
Roth spoke to representatives of the UNDP and migration researchers about provision for and integration of refugees in Turkey. He said that Europe intended the funding it had pledged as a contribution to the continued improvement of the conditions facing Syrian refugees in Turkey. The focus, he explained, was on very tangible projects in education, employment and integration. The Minister of State appealed, for example, for more schools and childcare.
No political free passes
Representatives of the opposition, civil society and the press gave Roth a picture of the domestic political situation in Turkey. He gave assurances that he would not skirt around uncomfortable topics during his political talks but also made the following clear:
In my view, dialogue is more effective than a cold shoulder. That does not mean free passes on questions of due process, the independence of the judiciary or freedom of the press and of opinion. Turkey must understand that the EU is committed to precisely those values. Our cooperation on the refugee issue will not override that.
There have been repeated instances recently of freedom of the press in particular being clearly restricted, which have attracted opprobrium from around the world.
Turkey’s progress towards the EU
Conversation with the students of Bilgi University was very lively. Roth spoke to them mostly about Turkey’s journey towards the EU. Roth said:
I can understand the disappointment as negotiations drag on, and I am glad that we have made some progress here as elsewhere. The opening of new chapters is by no means a reward but rather a mark of our wish to tighten the bonds between Turkey and ourselves and thus place more of an obligation on Turkey. Accession negotiations through structured dialogue provide that opportunity. I therefore hope that we will open the chapters of rule of law, democracy and fundamental rights soon.
The students also asked a lot of questions about the political situation in Germany and Europe. Roth encouraged the students to keep getting involved in debates. After all, he suggested, progress towards the EU was fuelled by vibrant and pro‑European civil society.
The work of the Hrant Dink Foundation
Delal Dink, daughter of Armenian-Turkish editor Hrant Dink, who was shot dead in 2007, told the Minister of State about the work of the foundation set up in her father’s name. The foundation primarily runs journalism seminars and forums for dialogue and exchange among students. It also gives out travel grants for civil society in order to bring people in Turkey and Armenia closer together. Roth said he very much welcomed the foundation’s forward-looking approach, saying it was making a major contribution to understanding and normalisation.