‘FRENCH ATTITUDE IS NOT THE RIGHT WAY’
Selcuk GultaªLi Brussels
Today’s Zaman, Turkey
March 1 2007
Carl Bildt, the Swedish foreign minister and a former prime minister
of Sweden, says the European Union has an immense strategic interest
in continuing accession talks with Turkey.
Carl Bildt: Turkey has changed. That is a good point you are raising.
What we have seen in the last years is a very impressive commitment to
reforms. We still have concerns on issues like 301, but there is no
question that the situation is fundamentally different from the past
in terms of commitments to human rights and in terms of commitments
One of the most vocal supporters of Turkey in Europe, Bildt says it is
sufficient to look at the map to see the huge strategic significance of
Turkey. In an exclusive interview with Today’s Zaman, Bildt says it is
now high time to act on behalf of the Turkish Cypriots and approve the
direct trade regulation. Bildt was given credit for his tough stance
on the Greek Cypriots in bringing the direct trade regulation back on
the agenda of the EU. Despite the decision on Dec. 11 to suspend eight
chapters relating to Turkish accession, the Swedish foreign minister
says there is no guarantee that there won’t be another crisis in the
next 15 days because of Greek Cypriot demands.
Though he avoids directly criticizing French presidential hopeful
Nicholas Sarkozy as he did in his blog before becoming foreign
minister, Bildt underlines that the decision to support Turkey’s
membership was taken years ago and recalls the fact that all EU
decisions occur with a compromise. On the Armenian question, Bildt
says the French way is not the right attitude. Giving examples from
his own country of Sweden, Bildt says history should be left to
historians. Implicitly criticizing the European leaders who hide
their bigotry behind public polls and are trying to block possible
Turkish membership, Bildt underlines that the hard decisions for the
EU were all made by decisive political leadership not by playing to
Bildt is strongly against Article 301 but still thinks Turkey has
improved much in the last couple of years. Answering the question
of why Sweden has become a champion of Turkey in the EU, when it
was one of the most critical in the 1990s, he gives a terse answer:
"Because Turkey changed."
Asked to explain what happened on Dec. 11, when the EU decided to
freeze accession talks with Turkey, Bildt, who was reportedly very
tough on the Greek Cypriots on that day, said: "There were quite a
number of ministers there that day. These ministers were all for the
continuation of talks with Turkey. It was very obvious that we needed
to freeze some chapters as was recommended by the commission. And
we had a discussion on how many chapters we should freeze and which
chapters. Then of course there was Cyprus. But I was not alone,
for sure. Had I been alone, we would not have been able to get
those decisions on Dec. 11. At the end of the day, we reached a
You were critical of the freezing of the eight chapters at the
My original position was that the number of chapters frozen should
have been fewer. But I had no difficulty in accepting those eight
chapters. I was very much concerned that some other chapters would
also be included.
In your now very popular article published at IHT on Nov. 7, 2006, you
wrote "We should not forget that these efforts did not fail because
of Turkey, but because key parts of the Greek Cypriot leadership
refused to accept a plan by the UN secretary-general that had the
clear support of the European Union." Do you think it was a mistake
to admit the Greek Cypriots without a solution?
No, I would not say that. History is what it is. We live history only
once. Your task is not to discuss on what happened in the past, but to
shape the future. That is what I am trying to do. I think the EU has
immense strategic interest in the continuation of accession process
with Turkey and as well as the eventual membership. We have also an
immense strategic interest in overcoming the division of Cyprus.
But the Greek Cypriots are blocking almost everything.
No. If you look at what we have achieved since December, we have
prepared four chapters and there was no blockage. That has been done
with the approval of Cyprus. So the balance in the compromise has
been reflected by them as well.
Mr. Lillikas, the Greek Cypriot foreign minister, hinted that they
could start asking for normalization. So there is no guarantee that
we will not bump into a wall again.
I wish there were more guarantees in life. But we reached a compromise
in December that has been respected by everyone so far, which includes
opening and closing new chapters.
Do you mean that the Cypriot blockage has been sorted out once and
for all after Dec. 11?
I cannot say that. Certainly I would not say that. The Cyprus
issue can always create numerous complications from many different
perspectives. That is going to take some time, we have a new UN
secretary-general and we do not know what role exactly he is going
There is no guarantee we will not face another crisis in the next 15
Well, there is no guarantee that EU will not collapse. Guarantees are
not something we have in political life. We have a good compromise
that has been respected by everyone so far. There is no reason why
I would not assume it would be the case further on.
What will the EU do after 2009 if there is still no solution to the
ports issue? Another punishment for Turkey?
That remains to be seen. But if there is no solution, the eight
chapters won’t be reopened. It will also have ramifications for
the rest of the negotiating process. That is fairly obvious. These
eight chapters are essential parts of the process. They have to be
reopened. I understand that we are now entering the election period
in Turkey. It might be the case that we cannot witness much progress;
that remains to be seen. But it is an issue that has to be sorted
out in the coming years.
Do you think EU has let the Turkish Cypriots down by not keeping its
promise to implement the direct trade regulation?
Whether they were let down or not is not the question; they felt
they were let down. We know that Turkey should honor its obligation,
which is a legal one; at the same time we should understand that
we undertook an obligation as well. That might be a political one,
but that does not make much of a difference in my lexicon. It is high
time to put that issue back on the agenda.
In your blog on Sept. 10, 2006, you criticized Mr. Sarkozy’s position
on Turkey, arguing his position was "taking us to conflict — inside
the Union, but more importantly along some of its most critical
borders." Now he is about to be the next president of France.
That is from my blog before I became foreign minister. Today if I
were to correct myself, I would be more diplomatic, but the substance
would be the same. Mr. Sarkozy is undertaking a presidential election
campaign, and it is not up to us to judge his campaign tactics. We can
judge his policies when they eventually materialize. But the policies
of the EU have been decided by the EU. It is based on a compromise
between the different member countries. We do have a policy when it
comes to the accession of Turkey and it has been established for many
years. That is of course still the policy that will apply.
You also argued in that blog piece on Sarkozy that he "wants to
restrict membership to countries on the continent of Europe, although
it’s not clear if he wants to expel Cyprus, with its position off
the coast of Lebanon."
There are some people who are saying that Turkey is not in Europe.
But if Turkey is not in Europe, it becomes very difficult to place
where Cyprus is. In my opinion they are both firmly a part of Europe,
both in terms of geography and culture. So it is very difficult to
say one is part of Europe, and the other is not.
Sweden was one of the most vocal critics of Turkey in the 1980s and
1990s. Now you have become one of the champions of it. What changed?
Turkey has changed. That is a good point you are raising. What we have
seen in the last years is a very impressive commitment to reforms. We
still have concerns on issues like 301, but there is no question that
the situation is fundamentally different from the past in terms of
commitments to human rights and in terms of commitments to reforms.
One day I read that the Austrians had saved Europe from the Turks,
the other day it was the Poles. Then I come across the Maltese,
they say they saved Europe from being "Turkified." Are you sometimes
surprised and disappointed about the amount of history Turkey’s
possible membership has evoked?
History plays its part in public opinion, in Turkey as well as in the
rest of Europe. The Treaty of Sevres still means something to Turks.
Some people have quite strong views about that and think Europe is
behaving in a way to resurrect it. So we are not alone to be affected
by history. Europe was consumed by religious wars, roughly a third
of the European population perished during the 30 Years War. The
Danes killed half of our nobility in 1520 in an event we called a
"bloodbath"; it is still a vivid memory in Sweden. It is no surprise
that some Europeans still remember the Turks at the gates of Vienna.
Have you been disappointed?
I am not the one to say history has no role; history plays a role.
The entire idea behind the EU project is to overcome the animosities
of the past but not to forget them, either. Having said that, we have
witnessed a fair deal of ignorance in the public debate about Turkey.
Since we are talking on history, what do you think of French efforts
to punish the deniers of the "Armenian genocide"? Europe rightly
criticizes 301, but is the French draft a European 301? Do you think
it is the right way?
No. That is not the way Swedes are doing it. We have a tradition of
a very wide interpretation of freedom of expression, and I think that
should be the way in a democratic society. So we tend to be critical
of 301, as you know. I do not think the French law will ever become
law, by the way; we are very critical of that tendency which aims to
restrict the freedom of expression. Questions of history should be left
to historians to debate. There is always a continuous revaluation of
history that is ongoing. We had a vigorous debate on our own history of
16th century, when the foundations of Sweden were laid. The king who
did all these things was a hero, now we have a re-evaluation. There
are now books about him that would have been difficult for publishers
to accept only 100 years ago.
When I read your article in the IHT, for a moment I was confused,
as if I were reading an American statesman so committed to Turkey’s
strategic importance. Not many European statesmen think like you.
I think you only need look at the map. The entire region around
the eastern Mediterranean, the Black Sea and the Middle East — the
stability of these regions is of profound importance to the EU. I
think Turkey, with its secular democratic system and zeal for reform,
can project these values to the region, to a much wider area.
Have you received any criticism that you have exaggerated the strategic
significance of Turkey?
No, actually most people have essentially agreed with me, but some
have said that Turkey’s membership would be difficult to realize with
the current public opinion. That may be the case, but to overcome that
depends on a fair amount of political leadership and much the same of
political leadership in Turkey. There is certainly a need for political
leadership for these issues in Europe. Now that we are celebrating the
50th anniversary of EU, and when we look back pivotal decisions were
taken by decisive political leadership, be they the re-unification
of Germany or the introduction of the euro, or the expansion, they
have come from political leadership, not from public polls and opinion.