Turkish EU Minister and Chief Negotiator Egemen Bağış has issued a warning to the Greek Cypriot administration, saying that Turkey will not hesitate to deploy war ships in the Mediterranean if Greek Cypriots enter Turkish terrestrial waters during their oil exploration efforts in the Mediterranean, scheduled to start on Oct. 1.
Saying that Turkey has sent naval vessels to the area in cases like this before, Bağış added, “This is what we have the navy for.”
In a conversation with Sunday's Zaman, Bağış shared his opinions on the recent rise of Islamophobia and xenophobia in Europe, stressing his concern that the situation could become even worse. He also shared with Sunday's Zaman readers his take on a number of issues ranging from the state of affairs in Turkish opposition parties to humanitarian aid in Somalia, the London riots and the Libyan refugee crisis.
Greek Cyprus has declared that it will begin oil exploration in the Mediterranean on Oct. 1. Can you comment on this?
The kinds of things that have happened in the past [Turkish naval interference with exploration] whenever the Greek Cypriots have made such attempts May well happen again. That is how serious Turkey is. Doing this in waters where they have no jurisdiction is illegal. Turkey will rely on international law to pursue its rights to the fullest extent.
Will the navy send a fleet?
This is what we have the navy for. We have trained our marines for this; we have equipped the navy for this. All options are on the table; anything can be done.
The Arab Spring still dominates the world's daily agenda. Has Turkey's EU membership bid been put to the side during this regional crisis?
We never stopped discussing the reforms. We are taking the necessary steps spelled out in our national program. We cannot say Turkey lost popularity in Europe during the Arab Spring. The international community cannot effectively reach out to the region without relying on Turkey's mediation.
The Schengen Agreement was undermined during the crisis over Libyan refugees, and the EU is now struggling with an economic crisis. What would you say to arguments that the EU will be dissolved?
I don't think this is going to happen. The EU's mechanisms may change, and its power over member states may change. The decision-making procedure may be made more local. The EU is essential for many of the member nations, which had fought each other for centuries. This is the primary reason for our eagerness to become a member; we see it as a project of peace. Substantial reforms have been introduced in Turkey in recent times: Without the impact of the EU bid, the progress we have made in recent decades would have been fairly difficult. The EU guidelines have served as a platform on which different social groups can reach consensus. The administration and the opposition meet in this platform.
Some are criticizing Turkey's aid to Somalia, arguing that there are Turks suffering from poverty and hunger.
What have those people who are criticizing Turkish efforts in Somalia done to address hunger in Turkey? It is our mission to extend support to Somalia. The current Turkish prime minister is the first in the last three decades to pay a visit to this region. Those who exploited these people sold them guns to incite enmity and hatred between different tribes. They made these people believe that sea products are not edible, while they exploited the lobster and tuna resources along the Somali coast. We want to send fishermen there to teach them how to fish. Once the security problems are resolved, we would like to set up a tuna processing plant there.
What would you say about the ongoing investigation into the football match-fixing allegations?
I am a Fenerbahçe fan; Fenerbahçe will remain a major team. But if there is wrongdoing at Fenerbahçe, the independent judiciary will implicate them.
In the aftermath of recent street protests in Britain, the British government discussed banning some websites, including Twitter and Facebook, as a preventive measure. However, the proposed voluntary filtering system in Turkey is being strongly criticized in Europe. Can you comment?
We are sick of this double standard. The chair of the Supreme Board for Communication, Tayfun Acarer, went to Brussels to brief the commission; we briefed the envoys of EU member countries. But they are still attempting to intimidate us on this issue. The lines of freedom should be drawn very carefully. If a mother wants to protect her children from pornography, violence and Satanism, she should be allowed to do so. We are obliged under the Constitution to protect young people; adults may do whatever they want.
Turkey has declared that it will not talk to the Greek Cypriots during the term of their EU presidency next year. Why has the EU remained silent regarding this decision?
They have nothing to say about this because they are aware of Turkey's determination. We are opposed to attempts to try to make us sit at the same table with the Greek Cypriots. We have said that we will not communicate with Greek Cyprus as president of the EU. We will only talk to the commission. This will blow over in six months anyway; it should not be a big deal.
Leading Republican People's Party (CHP) figure Gürsel Tekin criticized Turkey's financial aid to opposition groups in Libya, asking, “What would you do if someone sends money to the Kurdistan Worker's Party [PKK] in the future?” How would you respond to that?
Gürsel Tekin has not had enough experience to serve as a leading administrator, after serving in the local party administration. In general, we are pleased with the main opposition party, thanks to their poor performance. We were pleased with Deniz Baykal, but Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu is even better.
Does Europe extend sufficient support to Turkey's fight against terrorism?
In the past, EU member countries and the European Commission were critical whenever Turkey initiated a cross-border operation. However, asked about Turkey's most recent operation, the French foreign minister said they extended full support to Turkey's fight against the PKK, which the EU lists as a terrorist organization. We want peace and serenity. The Europeans understand this. Europe has shown its support by not making any criticisms at all of the recent operation. The PKK is now detrimental to the interests of Europe.
Do the CHP and the Grand Unity Party's (BDP) positions on combating terror overlap?
It was obvious [that the two parties were working together on the Kurdish issue] when they formed an alliance before last year's Sept. 12 referendum. Kılıçdaroğlu's efforts at election rallies in the Southeast to make sure that the audience would not wave a Turkish flag and the BDP's eagerness to transport people to the occasion were indications of this cooperation.
What do you think about the rise of Islamophobia and xenophobia in Europe?
I am worried about this. I was already concerned by the fact that a racist party received 16 percent of the vote in the Netherlands, and that a political movement that insults the values of the people is attracting further support. The reaction to the remarks by the German president that Islam is a reality in Germany was another indication. Multiculturalism, plurality and solidarity are fundamental values of the EU, but are now seriously at risk. Turkey can be an antidote in the resolution to these problems.
Everyone has an opportunity in Turkey
Minister Bağış said he was honored to have shared fast-breaking dinners with people of many different backgrounds this Ramadan, and shared an anecdote: “A 9-year-old girl from a poor family ranked first in math in İstanbul. Her brother was admitted into a prestigious university. Everybody has the opportunity to succeed. These kids now have opportunities, and this has raised my hopes.”
Ramadan does not mean going hungry
“Ramadan is about empathy, not about staying hungry. You come to better understand the problems and priorities of others once you are in their place. This is why Ramadan is such a meaningful time.”
Reaction to criticisms of Nihat Doğan
“You may not like some of his views or style, but Nihat Doğan is a good person. He volunteered for Somalia. What did those who criticize him do for the Somali people? At least he tried. If you don't like his music, don't buy his album. Unfortunately, this campaign of criticism was initiated because he publicly shared his political opinions and support for democratization.”