Olli Rehn: New constitution is a must to avoid new crisis

Olli Rehn

October 18, 2008, Saturday/ 18:21:00
On the eve of the Nov. 5 release of a critical progress report on Turkey’s EU membership efforts, EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn urged Ankara to stay within the boundaries of human rights and freedoms while fighting terrorism and called on member states of the 27-nation bloc to stand behind the union’s statements on combating terrorism.Rehn, speaking in an interview with STV Haber television and Today’s Zaman, also called for a brand new constitution to avert political crises in the future similar to those Turkey went through during last year’s presidential election. Tensions surfaced again when a state prosecutor filed a closure case against Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) on the grounds of anti-secular activities. Now that the crises are behind the country -- at least for the time being, it is time for the government to get serious about EU reforms and draft a new constitution -- one that will reflect the improvements in areas of democracy and civil rights in Turkey, Rehn said. The current Constitution came into force in the aftermath of a military coup in 1980. The enlargement commissioner, while refusing to criticize the government for its inaction on reforms, called on Ankara to take very seriously the issue of revamping the country.

The following are excerpts from the interview:

Seventeen Turkish soldiers were killed last week by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and there are calls to curb some EU-related freedoms. Can this be a genuine recipe for success?

It is very important that Turkey continues to fight terrorism and we express our support for that. It can be done fully in line with civil liberties and fundamental freedoms. I simply do not understand how anyone could say that EU reforms would weaken Turkey’s ability to fight terrorism. That is simply not the case. Many European countries have also been fighting terrorism, including Spain and Britain, and they have done so in line with fundamental freedoms and civil liberties.

How will Brussels react if Turkey backtracks on EU reforms?

I don’t think that will be the case and, as I said, we support Turkey in its fight against terrorism, and that can be done in line with civil liberties.

Do you think the EU is doing enough to help Turkey fight against terrorism? Right or wrong, the perception is that this is not the case. PKK-related TV channels are still able to broadcast from member countries?

The European Commission has very firmly condemned PKK terrorism and so has the presidency on behalf of EU member states. That is the position of the European Union and it is of course logical and necessary that European Union member states work in line with these statements.

Do you think Prime Minister Erdoğan delivered on the Kurdish issue after his historic speech in Diyarbakır in August 2005?

I don’t usually like to comment on individual politicians. Also in this case, I would not want to personalize the matter. I discussed at length the situation in the Southeast with Prime Minister Erdoğan. We discussed the fight against terrorism and we discussed social and economic development in the Southeast. The commission has for a long time encouraged the Turkish government to pursue a comprehensive strategic plan in order to facilitate better economic and social development in the Southeast. It is indeed essential to improve the everyday living conditions of people living in the Southeast. We support the Turkish government and authorities in these efforts. I understand that quite a number of things are going on and we will assess them in the forthcoming progress report. In the meantime, it is also important to recall that a very substantial share of EU funding is directed especially to southeast Turkey because in fact that is in line with EU principles. We want to support regional development and we want to reduce regional disparities. And of course once Turkey becomes a member of the European Union, regional policy and the EU’s structural funds will play an important role in the regional development of the country.

Are you bringing up the issue of Kurdish TV in your talks with your Turkish colleagues? Prime Minister Erdoğan has made a promise on the issue, but nothing has happened yet.

I’m informed about that and I think it’s very important that citizens’ rights are also expanded in terms of broadcasting in languages other than Turkish that are used in Turkey.

Has the government given you any timetable for Kurdish TV stations?

It is important that progress is being made in this sense and on our behalf we will study the precise date of broadcasting. We will then report in our progress report, due to be published on Nov. 5.

Will you criticize Turkey harshly in the upcoming report or focus on positive developments? Can you give us a sense of what is to come?

The progress report will, first of all, be objective -- as always. It is based on factual realities on the ground and it will be fair and balanced. Of course we all have seen that Turkey has experienced political crises recently, last year and this year, and one of the things Turkey should do is get rid of this annual cycle of political crises that helps no one. For that it is important to find a modus vivendi between the main political tendencies, between different lifestyles, so that different lifestyles are tolerated in Turkey. It is up to the Turkish society to decide what the right balance is and what the right decisions are, but that is certainly an essential thing from the point of view of the EU accession process because the EU accession process is suffering from a lack of political stability and the constant political crises that the country suffers from.

Why did you wait so long to refer to the accreditation problem, as it has been on the agenda for a long time?

When we are aware of something, we usually address it. I hope this accreditation problem will be settled sooner rather than later. But we also have limitations concerning our sources. We cannot comment on each and every development, even if they often are important developments, in Turkey. What concerns us is that we analyze and assess progress being made in Turkey as regards the EU accession criteria-- conditions that are very well known, legal, democratic and economic criteria that are called the Copenhagen criteria.

Will you refer to the accreditation in the upcoming report or was it only a one-time reference?

According to my understanding, it remains a problem; it is logical that we will also refer to this.

You are, naturally, very sensitive on human rights abuses. You usually refer to Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International; these two respectable organizations have time and again condemned the ban on headscarves. Why do you insist on not taking up the issue as a human rights violation?

I know that it is an extremely important issue in Turkish society and I have followed this debate very closely. At the same time we have no European standard as regards the headscarf issue. There are a whole variety of practices in the European Union. And, therefore, we cannot, from the viewpoint of the EU, without falling into the trap of double standards, we cannot start advising the Turkish society on this matter. What we can say is that while we are agnostic as regards the decision concerning the headscarf, we can say, however, “Please try to find a modus vivendi, a basic agreement between different lifestyles.” It is the essence of the headscarf issue that different lifestyles can coexist in Turkish society and that there is better social peace and better chances for consensus and dialogue.

However, none of the 27 EU member countries ban the headscarf at universities. You can at least say this ban is unacceptable on the university level.

You are factually correct. At the same time, every society is different; every society has a different history, a different legal and historical tradition. Therefore, we are cautious not to go too deep in this debate, one that is essentially something the Turkish society and politics should settle and find a common way of seeing. This issue is very important for tolerating different lifestyles within Turkish society. I think that is very important. By the way, this is one reason why we have encouraged Turkey so forcefully to enact an ombudsman law. We see the ombudsman as a guarantee of different lifestyles so that a citizen would not have to always go to court if he or she feels his or her rights have been violated over religious beliefs or lifestyles or for any other reason. The ombudsman could help settle many issues that are related to current -- rather heated -- debates in Turkish society.

In your speech in İstanbul last week, you said the ombudsman was a creation of the Ottoman Empire.

Yes, this is correct. The position was imported by the then Swedish King Charles the XII in the 18th century, in 1713, after he spent some time in Turkey. He recognized this Ottoman institution and imported it to Sweden, where it became one part of the very strong constitutional state and the legal tradition of Sweden. My country was then a part of Sweden so I know it also through this background. After centuries of development, it came to its current state. For instance, the European Union has an ombudsman for affairs related to the European Union. In Turkey, I would see that it could certainly strengthen citizen rights and facilitate better coexistence of different lifestyles in the spirit of democratic secularism.

Do you think there is a problem in the interpretation of Turkish secularism? The EU ombudsman, in a recent interview, argued that it could be good if Turkey took a fresh look at its secularism.

He speaks on his own behalf and it is essential that Turkey finds a modus vivendi, a capacity to live and find ways of living together and letting different lifestyles coexist in society, respecting their rights and freedoms, be these people strong secularists, be they strongly religious people or somewhere in between or whatever they are in terms of their religious beliefs. That is one part of being a European society and if Turkey wants to become a member of the European Union, it is important that it find that kind of modus vivendi and dialogue. I am not speaking about harmony, but finding a kind of underlying agreement is important. Maybe you can call it a basic consensus on rules of the game in society between varying lifestyles.

Can I deduce from what you said that Turkish secularism is a bit strictly interpreted?

I will not go into that discussion. It is up to the Turkish society to find a way and I hope that this can be done because it would be important to be able to settle this issue to move forward and take decisions on reforms that would facilitate Turkey’s accession to the European Union. That is what I am concerned about. I would like to see Turkey making more convincing decisions on the EU-related legal, democratic and economic reforms so that Turkey can make better progress in its EU negotiations.

How important is a new constitution in this respect?

It is important that Turkey can carry out constitutional reforms because the current Constitution was decided upon and entered into force in very particular circumstances, after the 1980 coup. Turkish society has changed a lot since then and Turkey has been a part of the EU accession process for many years; there has been a strengthening of fundamental freedoms and a strengthening of democracy. It should be important that these strengthened citizen rights and fundamental freedoms would also be included in Turkey’s constitution.

When political tensions were very high in the spring, some accused you of not understanding Turkey’s real dynamics and being ignorant of Turkish society. Some even said you had a hidden agenda. Do you have one?

Certainly not. I have a very open and transparent agenda and I have been quite vocal in presenting this agenda. It has some key elements. One is reforming Turkey to become a more European, open and modern society respectful of fundamental freedoms and democratic secularism. Secondly, yes, the defense of democracy is a very fundamental European value and I have difficulties seeing any country taking further steps toward the European Union if the very basic principles of democracy and democratic secularism are not respected.

Despite the European Parliament’s strong support for the Ergenekon investigation, the commission is a bit muted. Is that the case?

I think it is important that we let the investigation take its course in respect of the rule of law, an essential element of democracy.

As the political crisis is now over…

I hope it is.

At least for the time being.

Before the next one comes, please pursue constitutional reforms that allow the Constitution and the rules of the game to better deal with political crises and avoid political crises in the future so that we can focus on improving the lives of ordinary Turkish citizens and make progress towards the European Union.

Were you disappointed by the government, considering how it seems to have run out of steam for reforms?

Well, there have been some excuses related to the political crises. Now we have to assume that the political crises are over for the time being and I hope for a long time. So it is really time to get serious about EU-related reforms. Not only concerning the national reform plan of aligning with EU acquis, that’s important, but also on less technical more fundamental issues such as constitutional reforms and judicial reform so that you can really anchor citizens’ rights and fundamental freedoms into the Turkish constitution, legislation and, of course, their implementation on the ground.

If there is no solution to the Cyprus issue by the end of the year, will you again punish Turkey for not opening its ports?

I think we should not think of it as a matter of crime and punishment but rather in terms of a window of opportunity. And there is now indeed a window of opportunity, a real chance to make a breakthrough on a comprehensive settlement over the reunification of Cyprus under the auspices of the UN. The European Commission and the EU are fully supportive of this and we are always ready to assist this process. But we also expect that, apart from our service, Turkey and other countries will also politically support this process to its conclusion.

Interviews
Other Titles