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Turkey's EU envoy: 'If we don't have membership, so be it'

Caroline Schmitt April 20, 2016

The message is clear: Freedom of speech and other European values aren't high on President Erdogan's list. But how can he justify oppression and violence? Tim Sebastian interviews Selim Yenel, Turkey's EU ambassador.

Belgien Izzet Selim Yenel
Image: European Union/Georges Boulougouris

Selim Yenel on Conflict Zone

On paper, Turkey is a parliamentary democracy. In reality, journalists critical of President Erdogan are put in jail and the violent clashes in the country's southeast have affected more than 400,000 people. Last week, the European Parliament accused Ankara of "backsliding" on democracy and voiced "serious concerns over human rights violations" in a report.

Overlooked and unloved by the EU?

In an exclusive interview with DW’s Tim Sebastian, Selim Yenel, Turkey's EU ambassador said Turkey does take the criticisms seriously, but he rejected the document, noting that it was approved in "a non-binding resolution." On Tuesday Turkish President President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said, referring to the report: "Three million people have been looked after in this country so they don't disturb the Europeans. Is there anything about this in the report?" Erdogan also said the EU needed Turkey more than the other way round.

A factor that further complicates EU-Turkish relations is the deal between Brussels and Ankara that seeks to stop the flow of migrants to Europe. However Turkey's Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu on Monday said unless the EU grants Turkish citizens visa-free travel by June this year, it would not abide to the deal. That was part of the deal, but Turkey needs to fulfill a number of requirements before visa-free access to the EU can be implemented.

"Nobody believes it will happen"

Speaking to Tim Sebastian, Turkey’s EU envoy Selim Yenel revealed a nonchalant attitude about joining the EU: "We are very patient…in the end, if we don’t have membership, so be it." He added: "Nobody will ask to have Turkey because of our beaches. If it happens (...) it’s because the EU needs us."

The European Parliament adopted the report in a week of international controversy over President Erdogan's handling of international criticism. Ever since he assumed office in 2014, Erdogan filed 2,000 legal comlaints against critics. "Ongoing and new criminal cases against journalists, writers or social media users, intimidation of journalists and media outlets as well as the authorities' actions curtailing freedom of media are of considerable concern. Changes to the internet law are a significant step back from European standards," the report by MEP Kati Piri said.

Selim Yenel on Conflict Zone

Screenshot Jan Böhmermann in ZDF Neo Magazin Royale rezitiert Gedicht über Erdogan
Jan Böhmermann had recited a condescending poem on his TV show on March 31, 2016, in which he had criticized Erdogan for his authoritarian leadership.Image: ZDF Neo Magazin Royale

No humor left in Ankara?

"Your President seems to feel insulted on a daily basis," Tim Sebastian said, referring to the latest case of Erdogan's attempts to curb freedom of speech abroad. Jan Böhmermann, German comedian, read an anti-Erdogan poem in his show "Neo Magazin Royale" on German public broadcaster ZDF. German chancellor Angela Merkel gave approval for a criminal investigation to proceed against Böhmermann, the basis of which is an obscure article of German law designed to shield foreign heads of state from insults. Merkel has been accused of giving in to pressure from Ankara and trading freedom of speech for Turkish help on the refugee issue.

In December 2014, a 16-year-old Turkish schoolboy was arrested for insulting Erdogan during a speech at a student protest in the central Anatolian city of Konya. Attila Kart, a member of opposition party CHP, said the president was creating "an environment of fear, oppression and threat" then. When asked about the boy’s arrest, Yenel told Tim Sebastian there was a lot of "exaggeration" around the case.

Selim Yenel: Well, he probably wasn't aware that he was 16 years old.

Türkei PKK Nusaybin Zerstörung Konflikt
Since a ceasefire between Kurdish militants and Ankara collapsed in 2015, southeast Turkey has been shaken by new armed conflict.Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Tim Sebastian: Ah, it would have been different, would it?

Yenel: Yeah, of course. I mean, if he is legitimate.

But there are even more serious human rights violations. Since a ceasefire between Kurdish militants and Ankara collapsed in 2015, southeast Turkey has been shaken by new armed conflict. More than 400,000 people have been affected by the fighting between the Turkish army and militants in and around Cizre, the town that has seen some of the worst violence. Its population has gone down from 120,000 to 20,000 according to Faysal Sariyildiz, a local MP.

Yenel was also asked about why Turkey is attacking the YPG Kurdish militia in Syria. The YPG has been supported by Ankara’s main NATO ally, the United States.

“I know, they have a different view. They are wrong. And the President, when he was in The US said the same things to Obama,” Yenel said when asked about the divergence between the US and Turkey.