A writer and political scientist who has worked for over twenty years at the United Nations, and who has also supported the Armenian cause, Aktar has been following his country’s path towards the European Union from the beginning. “An obstacle course that has never been rewarded with membership to the Union that now, because of the authoritarian regression taking place in the country, seems even farther away,” he told Reset, at the Festival Internazionale. “It is absurd to think that just when Turkey is more distant than ever from European democratic parameters, Brussels is more sensitive than ever to its needs. And yet that’s the way it is. Ankara appears to be dictating conditions to you Europeans. It asked for three billion euro to accommodate refugees turned back from Greece, the resumption of negotiations for Turkey’s membership of the European Union, the EU, and the suspension of visa obligations in the Schengen area for 78 million Turks. You Europeans, led by the Commission, relented. For you the refugee crisis is the priority. Everything else, especially the violation of fundamental freedoms in a future state of the Union, is secondary.”
You have been interested in relations between Europe and Turkey for years. Do you fear the gap is widening?
Let’s start from the beginning.
Before the start of the integration process with the EU that never took off, I have always classified specialists on Turkey into two groups. On the one hand there are those who regard Turkey with hostility and on the other there are those who are sympathetic. Until 1999 I observed a lack of empathy. Europe has never been empathetic towards us and our country’s issues were frequently treated superficially. Something changed with the start of the integration process. While observing those who came to visit from European think tanks, from the print media and the universities, I began to seen something new. What was growing was not only curiosity, but a European thirst for a deeper understanding of our country. This scenario was truly stimulating. New Turkey specialists were sprouting up everywhere, with varying degrees of knowledge of the issues. But this at the time was not important. The significant thing was the explosion of this interest, also because this was not an end in and of itself. It was directed towards understanding how Europe should behave with Turkey and, more in general, with the Middle East.
This was a really fascinating period, but unfortunately it has run its course. It’s over. I’ll give you an example. At the beginning of the century, when Ankara undertook the path towards the European Union, the major European, North American and Japanese publications were becoming so interested in Turkish affairs that they moved their offices here, opening offices that they are now closing fast and furiously. Over the past few years this dream has been fading. More and more are packing their bags, especially in the last few months. We are progressively distancing ourselves. Our people are doing this more than our governments.
Among the various issues of friction between Brussels and Ankara is the liberalization of Schengen visas for Turkish citizens. Why is this so thorny?
Because Germany has always resisted, leading the way for an attitude that has become more and more common on the Old Continent. There have been other countries, which were much further back than us in the integration process, who have been able to resolve the visa issue. Countries that didn’t have real or imminent prospects of joining the EU. It is therefore normal that even now this aspect is being emphasised, although it is only a detail in a wider relationship. Even in the agreement signed in March to close the Balkan route, the request for visa liberalization was one of the first on the list.
Is the failed coup d’état of the night of July 15th influencing relations between the EU and Turkey?
Of course it is, especially at a time in which Brussels knows it must pay attention to what is taking place in Turkey. There is one thing that surprised me a lot in these past few months, especially during your summer holiday period. I heard more than once how Turkish democracy saved itself. What democracy? What are we talking about? Do we have any idea what is happening in the country? Everyone knows that even before the coup d’état in Turkey there was no freedom of the press or speech. The fundamental freedoms listed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights have not been respected for some time. Torture took place in Turkey before July 15th. Who can talk of democracy in Turkey?
Would it be more accurate to speak of electoral democracy?
Perhaps not even that, in fact. Turkish elections cannot be considered normal and free elections. And this must make us understand that the Turkey of today is much farther away from Europe than it was at the end of the 1990s.
Everyone knows that Turkey will never conform to the political criterion laid down by Copenhagen. We will need years for that. Europe prefers to close an eye and move ahead with the migrant agreement, thanks to which the border with Greece has been closed and the Balkan route shut down, only out of fear of having to manage another wave of migrants. I understand Europe’s worry over the migrants, but this doesn’t justify what Turkish citizens are putting up with. More and more people have no future in their country and it will be hard for them to envisage one. The children have no prospects. There is no work, there is nothing. And we know that these are the conditions that push many to emigrate.