Turkey and Spain have decided to extend their Alliance of Civilization agenda for further 15 years to address issues like xenophobia and discrimination in societies.
At the end of her first visit outside the European Union (EU) after the COVID-19 lockdown, Spanish Foreign Minister Arancha González Laya told Anadolu Agency in an exclusive conversation in Ankara that both countries have agreed to invest a little bit more in redefining a positive agenda of Alliance of Civilization for the next 15 years and diversify it further to combat extremism.
In the wake of tragic events of 9/11 both countries had set up the agenda called Alliance of Civilization to confront the theory of Clash of Civilization to prevent a backlash against Muslims across the world.
“The agenda has broadened. And what we have agreed today to invest a little bit more in redefining a positive agenda for the next 15 years based on the experience of this last 15 years,” she said.
Laya said she was in touch with her Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu during the COVID-19 pandemic crises. Spain was one of the worst affected countries with 272,421 confirmed cases and 28,432 deaths due to COVID-19.
Spanish minister said she wanted to start her foreign tour outside the European Union from Turkey after the COVID-19 lockdown to discuss several issues like repatriation of nationals, developments in the Mediterranean, Libya, and Syria.
A Joint Action Plan was signed between the two countries in 1998. Has this plan worked well to lay down fundamentals of the bilateral relations or the time has come to review it based on the current circumstances?
Arancha González Laya (AGL): That was then this is now. What I can say is that the agreement was very helpful in cementing the very deep relations that Turkey has with Spain, not only on the economic side, an exchange of $12 billion every year with a good surplus on this trade, by the way, in favor of Turkey and very big investments from Spanish companies into this country.
But not only on the economic and trade side, but there is also a deep dialogue between our defense ministries. We have a dialogue between our interior ministers. We have a regular dialogue between foreign affairs teams. We have got cooperation in areas like tourism or health. So, it is very broad and it has grown over time, by the way, not only on a government to government but also a cooperation between cities. There is a very interesting twinning exercise with cities in Turkey, Ankara, Istanbul, Konya, Antalya, and sister cities in Spain, where the cooperation is not just government to government, but also city to city and also between students. Many Spanish students love to come to Turkey to do their Erasmus and many Turkish students who like to go to Europe for the Erasmus into Spain. So, the cooperation and the links are very vast, they are deep. And what we want to do is deepen them more, because we see on both sides that there are opportunities that could be exploited even better.
More contacts required between Turkey and Spain
Q: Do you think the Turkish and Spanish societies know each other sufficiently? Could you talk about the steps taken so far for this purpose?
AGL: Well, let us say that we could get to know each other better. And that requires more contacts. And these contacts have to be at the cultural level. At the sports level. I know this is a country that loves football. It is a dialogue that has to be taken with think tanks, with journalists, with the students with businesses. So, what we need to do is deepen the contacts between our societies. We call it people to people contacts because that is the best guarantee that at the end of the day, we will get to know each other better. And when one gets to know each other better, their relationships are smoother. And when there are difficulties, it is easier to manage them because we have got a better understanding of the desires and the aspirations of the other side.
Q: Turkey has a multi-dimensional fight against different terror organizations such as PKK/YPG, Daesh/ISIS, and FETO. How do you see this fight, which also involves European security?
AGL: Well, we are a country that knows a little bit about terrorism because we have suffered it ourselves. So, it is an issue to which we are sensitive. And this is why we share for example, with Turkey's global fight, cooperation, or global fight against Daesh/ISIS. That is just an example of where we work together. We also collaborate a lot within the United Nations to fight against terrorism worldwide. It is an issue where the interior ministries of both countries are in a dialogue, which probably could deepen even more moving forward.
Q: What would you like to say about the developments in Libya? In a statement, you recently said that the EU should consider the Eastern Mediterranean a more strategic place. Could you elaborate more on this statement? Whether this would ease Turkey’s concerns or cause further confrontation between Turkey and the EU?
AGL: Well, first, the Mediterranean Sea is our shared sea. We share it with Turkey. We share it with Greece Cyprus, Libya, Italy, France, Algeria, and Morocco. We all share this sea and therefore we are all responsible for making sure that there are safety, security, and prosperity in the Mediterranean. That is why we are concerned in Spain by what is happening in Libya, because it is a threat to the security of the Mediterranean, and therefore it is a threat to the security of Spain. And this is why what we are calling for, and this is a message I brought here to Ankara, is a call to have an unconditional ceasefire by all parties involved in the conflict in Libya. And to push for the parties in Libya, to go back to the negotiating table to negotiate a political settlement under the auspices of the United Nations in the Berlin process.
That is what we would like to see the answer is in the hands of the Libyans. What we have to do is ensure that the Libyans, they are encouraged to go to the negotiating table and find a solution that would accommodate them all. In the meantime, we are also very sensitive in Europe and Spain. We share this sensitivity to ensure that the arms embargo that was agreed as part of the UN would be respected by all parties. And when I say all I mean, all, whether the weapons come from through the sea, through the air or land. We think it is important to respect the commitment we have all taken in the UN to prevent the flow of weapons.
Q: What is the mechanism for that? Because Libya is a huge country that has sea borders also uncontrolled land borders with other African nations starting from Egypt, Sudan, Chad and other countries.
AGL: We in the EU wanted to put our modest contribution towards respecting the arms embargo. For that, we have agreed to set up an operation called Irini, which is meant to ensure that, again, through the sea, air, and land control using ships, boats, planes, and satellites, that we ensure and respect the embargo. Of course, this is only a contribution. What we need is a commitment on the side of all signatories of this UN arms embargo to respect it. And it is important because this may be a good way to encourage the parties to go back to the negotiating table.
Spain’s fight against the pandemic
Q: What are the precise measures the Spanish government has in place to stem the spread of the COVID-19 as the tourism season has opened and millions of people from the UK where the infection rate is constantly changing are visiting your country in the summer?
AGL: The pandemic has been controlled in Spain. So, we have taken measures to trace and track the infected citizens, trace their contacts, and isolate those who are positive. Ensure harsh social distancing, so that we can protect their neighbors. But we also know, like any other country in the world that unless and until there is a vaccine or a treatment, we are going to live with COVID-19 within our societies. So, very tough measures, but we cannot prevent outbreaks from happening. And when they happen, what we do is to isolate those cases. Sometimes it is a street, sometimes it is a village, sometimes it is a region. And what we are precisely doing is that isolating the problem so that the rest of the country can continue to live safely. It is, again a big effort of every region in Spain is embarked on this effort based on a protocol that is common to all the regions that were concluded with the central government to ensure Spain remains a safe country. Since we do not have yet any vaccine or treatment. So, we have got to learn to leave with the virus but making sure the virus is contained as it has been done in Spain.
Q: You defended the idea that COVID-19 will bring a new kind of globalization. How would this affect the Mediterranean region in particular and the world in general in terms of geopolitics and economy?
AGL: Well, what we see with COVID-19 are several trends getting accentuated that existed before. We were seeing a move towards digitalization and this has accelerated. We have seen this in education. We have seen this in payments. We have seen this in online shopping. We tended to decarbonize our economies to more sustainable production and consumption practices. And this has accelerated with the pandemic because we have realized the importance of running our economies more sustainably. The realization that inequalities were not good for our democracies to have been emphasized more. We have seen how the stalling of our economies has affected on poor. So, all these trends were there before. The COVID-19 has brought these issues to a new life. Think the world of tomorrow is not a world that will be de-globalized. I think it is a world that will be re-globalized. We are seeing a re-globalization. The energy that powers globalization in the future is technology. And therefore, we all needed to make sure that technology is accessible, available, affordable to all citizens to all businesses, and that we have all our citizens, all our businesses are part of this new globalization wave called digital technology.
Measures against fresh pandemic outbreaks
Q: What are the measures Spain and the EU will be taking while reopening their borders to avoid new coronavirus outbreaks?
AGL: What we have done is ensure we open borders gradually, and starting with the countries that had epidemiological rates similar to those prevalent in Europe. So, we wanted to open the borders not based on diplomatic criteria or political conventions, but looking at them with the epidemiological data. What we have in mind is to fight against the pandemic. And to fight against the pandemic, we have to be lucid and open gradually. First, to those who have better epidemiological data. That is how we will be able to restore movement in our countries while making sure that we protect the health of our citizens.
Q: Spain is one of the major countries supporting Turkey’s membership in the EU. The negotiations have been suspended now. What is the way out or are there any chances of revival of negotiations? Would Spain support steps towards opening new chapters in Turkey’s EU membership process and progress in visa liberalization talks?
AGL: I think what is missing is confidence and trust. So, we need to build trust. And it takes two to build this trust. It takes the EU on one side and Turkey on the other side. So, what we need to do is, and this is also the purpose of my visit to Turkey is to make sure that we build trust between Turkey and the EU. At the end of the day, accession talks, our negotiations with a country that wants to become a member of the EU family to enlarge the family, you need to make sure that you trust the other side and that the other side trusts you. It is mutual. So, I think what we desperately need is to build trust. Trust is built not only by saying it is done by doing, but by practicing. I think I am confident that if there is a willingness, we will find a way to instill a little bit more trust in our relationship.
Q: In a recent EU Foreign Ministers Council meeting in Brussels, Turkey was among the discussion topics. You described Turkey as a neighbor with whom the EU has privileged ties and is a partner of NATO, but whose actions are viewed with concern" by the European bloc. What are these concerns about Turkey?
AGL: Well, it is not only that Turkey is a partner, but Turkey is also a NATO ally, not just a friend. In NATO, you do not have friends you have allies. That is much more than a friend. It is someone with whom you share something as important as your security. This is what Spain shares with Turkey. It shares a missile battery that we have here in this country that is helping protect this country against third countries. So, that is the level of relationship that a country like Spain which is a member of NATO has with Turkey. Now, that we have seen and this is also what I have discussed with Minister Cavusoglu, several unilateral moves on the side of Turkey in recent times, whether it was on the Eastern Mediterranean or Libya, on in the area of migrations. All of these are areas where we share the same objectives that Turkey has, where we share the difficulties. But there is a concern on the EU side about some moves that Turkey has taken. So, I think when these things happen, and I am sure that Turkey has also sensitivities over steps that Europe takes, so it is not a game of accusations. It is a game of understanding what is the perspective of the other side. It is only when you understand when you listen to the other side that you will be able to find a way forward. Again, which is what I tried to do with coming to Turkey to discuss with the Turkish authorities.
Irregular migration a common concern
Q: Do you think the EU’s support to Turkey in its fight against terrorism is sufficient? Does Turkey receive sufficient support in hosting Syrian refugees and its endeavor in dealing with irregular migration?
AGL: Well, as a matter of fact, Spain shares a lot of concerns that Turkey has on irregular migration because Spain is also a country that faces the challenge of irregular migration. So, it is not that we do not understand what are the challenges that Turkey faces. We have the same challenges; we face the same difficulties. I think my honest view is that in to fight irregular migration, the best way to do it is with a sense of co-responsibility.
In dialogue with your neighbor, in a dialogue with your partner, working together to make sure this is not felt like the problem that the other party has or a problem that you have, but a problem that both parties share. This is the basis to find a way to manage irregular migration. Let us not forget that a lot of these irregular migrations are in the hands of human traffickers, criminal networks that are thriving on the misery of other citizens. There has to be a big sense of co-responsibility. In our case, Turkey with EU member states needs to fight this criminal network that is thriving on people's misery. That is what we think we have to do. This is certainly what we tried to do with our next-door neighbors. This is what we do with Syria, Morocco, Mauritania, Guinea and Senegal, understanding that this is our common challenge was not just Spain’s challenge. Well, I think it is the same in the Eastern Mediterranean side. It's not just Turkey’s challenge. It is Turkey and the EU’s challenge and the best way to manage it is through a dialogue between us.
I think Europe understands the enormous solidarity that Turkey has shown visibly to refugees from Syria. And this is why Europe has supported and continues to support significantly Turkey in its effort for hosting Syrian refugees. I think what is important now is to ensure we all Turkey and the EU, together with some neighbors also including Russia, contribute to peace and stability in Syria as a precondition to ensure people can safely return to their homes. That is where we need to put cursor now is in ensuring stability in Syria that has been long lacking, and which is the origin of many of the burdens that Turkey and the EU share as regards Syrian refugees.
Q: You said that supporting Latin American countries with concrete measures for recovering after the pandemic crisis should be a priority for the EU. What measures do you think are necessary for that?
AGL: Well, we have been in a dialogue with Latin American countries, the vast majority of which are middle-income countries. And one of the difficulties that these middle-income countries have and they have shared this with us is essentially ensuring as soon as the vaccine and the treatment against COVID-19 will be available, it will reach them.
That is priority number one. But priority number two is access to finance for middle-income countries. You see countries that are not poorest don't get financing on concessional terms. But some countries are finding it difficult in the current tight financial environment to get access to the necessary capital and credit to boost their economies as a response to the COVID-19. So, these are the big two areas, access to vaccines and treatment against COVID and access to finance, capital, and credit to exit the crisis. We are working with Latin American countries and we will continue to advance this common agenda because we think this is important. Spain enjoys a historical and privileged relationship with the continent.
Alliance of Civilization v/s Clash of Civilization
Q: In 2005, Spain at the UN had suggested forging an Alliance of Civilizations in contrast to the argument of Clash of Civilizations, a thesis that people's cultural and religious identities will be the primary source of conflict in the post-Cold War world. Spain and Turkey had committed to working together to promote this alliance of civilizations. What were the elements of this cooperation and how important is it in the current circumstances? Now 15 years down the line, what progress has been made on the issue?
AGL: We set up the agenda of Alliance of Civilizations 15-years ago. It was an exercise that had a lot to do with 9/11 and preventing a backlash against Muslims. Now, 15 years later, I think it is fair to say that maybe we have to broaden the agenda. Because of the much broader agenda, today is the fight against xenophobia and discrimination, understanding of diversity, and fight against extremism. And also, the prejudices against migrants. The agenda has broadened. And what we have agreed today is to invest a little bit more in redefining a positive agenda for the next 15 years based on the experience of these last 15 years.
Q: Your government had opened talks with Catalonian leaders, I think early this year after major controversies. What are the progress and the way out for sorting out this issue?
AGL: You can only learn to live with your differences. If you do this through dialogue and the respect for the law, and does this what we are trying to foster is a dialogue, discussion, debate, understanding within the confines of the law. The law is what unites us is what makes us a country and community. But within this community using dialogue as a means to understand different perspectives and different points of view and this government has always said that the method is the dialogue and we remain committed to this.
Q: Despite three referenda resulting in favor of the UK in Gibraltar previously, do you think a new public vote is needed in the region in the post-Brexit era? What are the main challenges on the Gibraltar-Spain border and how will the Spanish government approach those problems?
AGL: Well, this is a discussion about the UK and the EU. And the UK has decided to leave the EU through a public vote. We did not agree with the result. But we respect the decision that the British people made for themselves. Now, that is only half of the story. The other half is what kind of relationship will the UK has with the rest of the EU post Brexit. That is what we are trying to build now. It affects Spain more individually because there is an aspect of Gibraltar in the relationship between Spain and the UK. But, again, for us in Spain, it is very clear. We believe that the closer the relationship between the UK and Spain, the better it is, the closer the relationship between the UK and the EU, the better it is. That is our vision and that is what we are trying to advance in the negotiation.
But we need to understand what is the desire on the British side. Are they equally interested in this close relationship obviously cannot be as close as being a member of the EU because they have decided not to be a member of the EU? The ball is in their camp, and we are waiting to hear from them which is why the negotiations between the EU and the UK are going very slowly and that is why the negotiations between Spain and the UK as regards Gibraltar are also going very slow. The answer is to dial to London and find what they are going to do. Because the clock is ticking. We know that the transition period ends on Dec. 31, 2020. The UK has made it very clear that they do not wish to extend the transition period beyond Dec. 31. So, we are waiting to see what kind of relationship they envision for the future.
Fighting Islamophobia in Spain
Q: Hate crimes and religious intolerance such as Islamophobia are on the rise in Spain, according to figures from the country's Interior Ministry, and far-right political movement is finding ground in recent elections in Spain. How will the government tackle those issues of concern?
AGL: Well, we must invest in education, we must invest in fostering and nurturing living in diversity. Spain is a diverse country. We are diverse from languages, from religions, sentiments. But we need to nurture the idea that we can live together with this diversity and for that dialogue, which is what we try to do also through the Foreign Ministry. We have got specific dialogues with different communities that we foster through casas, which means a house. The casa that I am referring to is think tanks, through which Foreign Ministry fosters understanding knowledge and contacts between people of different religions having different beliefs and from different backgrounds to learn to live together.
Q: US-Spain relations were strained due to the digital tax problem. How can this problem be solved? Can Spain and the EU confront the US on this issue?
AGL: Well, first let me tell you that the relations between Spain and the US are healthy, and they are healthy because they are long-lasting, and they are deep-rooted. But it is true that like in any relation, there are things that you agree a bit more and there are things on which you disagree. This moment we disagree with taxing value-added digital activities. This is something that Spain, like many other countries around the world, including many in the EU, disagree, because we think will not play fairness of our fiscal systems. We cannot have entire parts of our economy the digital part, not paying taxes when the analog part of the economy is paying taxes. Now, for us, the best way to proceed would be to have an understanding of the OECD.
For a taxation system of value-added digital activities, we would prefer to have one system rather than every country having its system, which is why what we are doing in promoting and investing in negotiation in the OECD. We will always want to continue our dialogue with the US. It is the best way to manage areas where we have differences. But on this one, I think Europe is clear and it is so clear that Europe has put the idea of digital taxation in its recovery fund that was recently adopted by the EU leaders as a response to COVID.
Q: Anadolu Agency Spanish wire acts as a bridge between the two cultures. Do you follow it?
AGL: Well, I have to commend you for opening the Anadolu Spanish channel. I think it will greatly contribute to fostering a better understanding of the Hispanic or Spanish speaking community around the world a big part of which is obviously in the American continent, in North America as it is in Latin America, so well done. I am looking forward to reading from you and listening to Anadolu Spanish.