President of Turkey

Speech made to the Assembly

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Before I deliver my speech, I would like to express my deepest condolences to the Russian people and to the Russian delegation here. I strongly condemn, once again, all kinds of terrorism.

Mr President, Secretary General, honourable members of the Assembly, it is a great pleasure to be back in the Council of Europe. I served here as a member for almost 10 years. Being a member of the Parliamentary Assembly was a source of huge personal experience and enrichment for me. In fact, my commitment to the Council of Europe entirely overlaps with my 20-year-long political career.

I first took the floor as a member of the Parliamentary Assembly. Then, I had the opportunity to address the Assembly as Prime Minister and represented my country as the Minister of Foreign Affairs at the Committee of Ministers.

“Europe is a way of life based on shared common values and standards with universal relevance”

As I address the Assembly for the second time as the President of Turkey, my fellow citizen, Mr Çavuşoğlu, is presiding over the Assembly and my country holds the chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers. On this occasion, I extend my heartfelt thanks to the member states for the trust shown in my country.

Mr President, while we gather here in Strasbourg at the beginning of 2011, Europe is in a mood of deep pessimism. Our continent is trying to come out of the severest economic crisis. Although global in its scope, the economic crisis has affected Europe more severely than other parts of the world. It is gripped by high unemployment, and huge debt compels many governments to adopt harsh economic measures.

For most of the past 400 years, the west has enjoyed a huge comparative advantage over the rest of the world in developing ideas, materialising industrial revolution, innovating technology and generating economic growth.

Only 10 years ago, the industrial democracies dominated the world economy, contributing about 70% of global economic output. Today, that share has fallen to just over 50%; in another decade from now, it is estimated that it will fall to about 40%. Then, the bulk of global output will be produced in the emerging world. Different growth rates lead to a new distribution of global power. It is obvious that the centre of gravity is shifting towards other parts of the world, particularly Asia. If current trends continue, Europe’s role and influence in economic terms will gradually decline.

Nevertheless, Europe is not just about industrialisation, technology or economic power. It is also the cradle of notions such as democracy, the rule of law and respect for human rights. The enlightenment and democratic revolutions were all original European achievements with historic global appeal. The relative economic powers of countries and continents have risen and declined in the course of history. However, the values that have been developed in Europe will persist, and will continue to guide humanity in the coming centuries. Therefore we should not lose sight of the huge strengths that Europe still holds.

Ruined by warfare for centuries and having experienced several tragedies in the 20th century, Europe proceeded to produce humanity’s noblest works. Our continent has come a very long way in the past 60 years in building a common democratic order based on the rule of law and respect for human rights.

Post-war Europe was constructed as a house where being a European citizen or resident means belonging to a community based on the enjoyment of individual rights and freedoms. Those rights are guaranteed by democratically elected governments and protected by an impartial and independent judiciary. Tolerance, acceptance and mutual respect of diversity have become our shared norms.

The membership of such a community entails accepting certain obligations in respect of others and contributing to the development of a fair and cohesive society. These democratic achievements continue to be the best that Europe offers to the rest of the world. Europe represents a way of life based on shared common values and standards with universal relevance. This remains its strength and relevance in the contemporary world. A divided Europe has led to war and oppression whereas a Europe without dividing lines and based on shared democratic principles has led to peace and prosperity.

Our Organisation has been at the centre of this democratic construction. Its pioneering work has transformed our continent into a single legal space. However, I should admit that Europe is not fully aware of its soft power. The European institutions have positively transformed the security and economic climate in broader Europe since the Second World War. Yet, we are not active enough to project our enormous soft power on the global scale. As a result, now Europe is seen as an absent player in world affairs.

There are growing manifestations of intolerance and discrimination in many of our societies. Over the past few years, our member states have been affected by weakening social ties. Radicalisation and increasing gaps between different regions and ethnic and cultural communities have started to harm the social fabric of our nations. These contemporary trends challenge the cohesion of European societies and may even endanger Europe’s democratic acquis. Racism and xenophobia represent a major cause of concern in connection with the current economic crisis. They lead governments and political elites to take a tough line on immigration.

Roma and Travellers, Muslims or Jews and, more generally, those who are different experience hostility and social exclusion in many of our societies. There is a rise in electoral support for political parties which portray immigration as the main cause of insecurity, unemployment, crime, poverty and social problems. There are trends which should concern us all. Those pathologies are weakening Europe and decimating its soft power in the world. We should work hard to defeat those problems to reassert Europe on the global scene.

Distinguished parliamentarians, the Council of Europe has done and continues to do much for promoting peaceful co-existence and mutual respect between peoples of different origin, culture and faith living in Europe. You in the Assembly have devoted many of your sessions to this task.

The European Court of Human Rights has many judgments supporting this objective. The Committee of Ministers, the Commissioner for Human Rights and the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance have made their contribution to living together as equals in dignity. Therefore, the Council of Europe has the duty to address and counter these new challenges. As the guardian of European Convention on Human Rights, we have the obligation to defend our values which are preconditions for democratic security and stability in Europe.

Let me make the point clear: European societies will eventually become more diverse. As demographic trends indicate, with declining and ageing populations, continued prosperity requires some degree of migration for most European societies. Experts are united in their opinion that migration will compensate slower economic growth stemming from the ageing population. On the other hand, we have also seen reverse migration among our member states due to differences in economic growth rates. For example, my country – Turkey – is now experiencing immigration from western European countries, whereas it was a source of migration from the 1960s. Therefore, fortress Europe is not a rational choice. It is an illusion. If our societies become more diverse, we have to address the growing political and social consequences of that diversity.

European democracies have begun to identify what the American democracy had discovered earlier: separate but equal is a wrong idea. Separate cannot be equal. Both migrant communities and host countries should do their utmost to avoid segregation, separation and parallel communities. For harmonious democratic societies, diversity has to be inclusive. Successful integration of migrants has to be a two-way street.

European Muslims have perhaps been more affected than others by these tendencies, particularly after the terrorist attacks since 11 September 2001 in New York, Madrid, Istanbul and London. Muslims in Europe are very diverse not only in their geographical origins and cultural heritage, but also in their ways of interpreting and practising their faith. Yet it is a misperception to view these diverse communities as a unitary one defined by religion. This is fundamentally at odds with European values. The perpetrators of these crimes have nothing to do with Islam. One should also bear in mind that those terrorist organisations are attacking many Muslim targets too. They do not have achievable political objectives, but rather pursue their archaic and illicit utopian ideas. Islam, like all other religions, teaches tolerance and respect for human beings of all faiths. It is the abuse of faiths for political purposes that leads to intolerance and exclusion. The same applies to almost every ethnic minority of recent immigrant origin in Europe. Those communities have found themselves the subject of stereotyped portrayal in public opinion and the media.

We must retain confidence in the ability of our democratic institutions to promote human rights, tolerance, dialogue, and social cohesion. We need to develop a democratic framework for living together. By doing so, Europe can remain a beacon of respect for human rights in the world. It is said that the price of freedom is eternal vigilance. The rise in popular fears about immigration and minorities has led to greater popular support for marginal political parties. Let me emphasise that I am even more concerned by the reaction of mainstream political parties in addressing such popular fears.

I have been advocating the construction of a new political language for some time both at home and abroad. I believe that the nature of political language determines the outcome. Political language can be either constructive or destructive. With their choice of language, political actors can serve to foster common understanding or division. Therefore, mainstream political parties in Europe have to address these fears in a convincing manner while defending respect for diversity and human rights.

We have to make the argument much more forcefully that the continent will not be safe with politicians who claim that Europe is at war with other cultures and religions. On the contrary, if unchecked, the growing influence of such arguments will make Europe not only less tolerant and democratic, but a more dangerous place to live in. European values are based not only on our achievements, but on bitterly learned lessons. Let us not forget that the popular support for explicit anti-Semitism was only 5% in the late 1920s. With the snowball effect, that poisonous minority paved the way for the Holocaust from the late 1930s. History does repeat itself if we do not draw lessons from our past mistakes.

Our Organisation – the Council of Europe – has a major role to play in meeting these contemporary challenges. That is why I am particularly pleased to see the establishment of a Group of Eminent Persons at the initiative of the Turkish chairmanship. I thank Secretary General Jagland for bringing together such eminent Europeans to form this group. I am equally delighted to see that the group is headed by my dear friend Joschka Fischer. I call on your Assembly to bring your contribution to this project, appropriately called “living together”.

Democracy and human rights can never be taken for granted. As guardian of these values, the role of the Council of Europe, I believe, remains as relevant today as it was 60 years ago. Some members of our Organisation have joined in a qualitatively different relationship in the EU. But Europe is not just composed of the EU. The Council of Europe, embracing 800 million Europeans, remains the only pan-European value-based organisation. In fact, thanks to the Council of Europe, millions of Europeans are now enjoying their fundamental rights, such as equal treatment, expression of opinion, gender equality, good governance, transparency and accountability. It is the Council of Europe that translated these values into binding commitments through monitoring mechanisms and created a European legal space. It would therefore be a grave mistake to underestimate the merits of our Organisation in the construction of a free, safe and prosperous Europe.

To maintain and enhance this role of the Council of Europe, I call on all members of the Organisation to increase their political involvement in the work of the Council of Europe. I know that Secretary General Jagland is firmly committed to political reform to make the Council of Europe more relevant and visible. I shared my views about the future of the Organisation when he visited me in Ankara. In our meeting earlier this morning, he informed me that he will soon be presenting new ideas for more reform. Turkey has been supporting his efforts. To this end, the Turkish chairmanship has identified reform of the Organisation as one of its priorities. The next meeting of the Committee of Ministers is scheduled to be held next May in Istanbul. I hope that this meeting will be the appropriate occasion to finalise some of the reforms currently under consideration.

The most successful and transforming body of our Organisation has been the European Court of Human Rights. This unique institution is a success in itself. It is a paradox that the Court today faces the most serious challenges. Therefore, the reform process, which was initiated at the Interlaken conference during the Swiss chairmanship, should continue. I am pleased that the Turkish chairmanship will organise, as a follow-up to Interlaken, a high-level conference in Izmir in the spring.

Mr President, distinguished friends, like the state of affairs in today’s Europe, the Council of Europe is at a crossroads. There are serious reasons for concern in Europe. Yet, our belief in democracies to correct their shortcomings and to overcome challenges should remain unshakeable. European states must resist the temptation to turn inwards. Europe cannot escape the accelerating process of economic and cultural globalisation; on the contrary, it must embrace it. To the extent that Europe succeeds in embracing it, Europe can demand change and shape developments in the world.

Europe’s growing internal diversity, the global relevance of its shared values and the lessons learned from its past are our major assets. We all remember the speech by Winston Churchill to the Council of Europe in 1950 when he called for the creation of a “unified European Army” in the face of the communist threat. Our former foes have now become our new friends and allies. Europe has become much safer than it was 60 years ago. Yet the challenges from within Europe still exist. To overcome those menaces, we do not need to create a unified European army. What we need today is to construct a “unified European conscience” for a freer, safer and more egalitarian and united Europe.

The Council of Europe is the embodiment of our values and aspirations. Therefore, it is the right venue to nurture the European conscience. Let us work together and act together to build it. Thank you.


Thank you very much, Mr Gül, for your most interesting address. Members of the Assembly have expressed a wish to put questions to you.

More than 40 members have given notice of a question. I remind them that questions must be limited to 30 seconds and no more. Colleagues should ask questions and not make speeches.

The first question is from Mr Volontè, who speaks on behalf of the Group of the European People’s Party.

Mr VOLONTÈ (Italy) (interpretation)

thanked the President for his speech and said that it was a particular pleasure for him because Mr Gül was a former colleague of his in the Council of Europe. He agreed with Mr Gül that, in the 1930s, Europe had been worried about extremism, but Europe had no wish to return to those times. He noted Mr Gül’s comments about constitutional reform and asked how he would entrench respect for religion in the constitution.

Mr Gül, President of Turkey (interpretation)

said that Turkey was undertaking reform to raise its democratic and legal standards. This work had been called a “silent revolution”. He agreed that there was more to do, as Turkey, like all countries in Europe, the EU, east and west, was not perfect. Turkey was aware of its shortcomings and he was confident that they would be tackled through continued reforms.

Ms DURRIEU (France) (interpretation)

welcomed the President as a former colleague and praised the reforms that Turkey was undertaking. The Council had, the previous day, heard about Turkey from the Chairman of the Committee of Ministers. In some countries, the democratic revolution was clearer to see than in others and she noted the clear support given to reform in the last referendum. She asked what progress was being made to implement the changes requested by the Venice Commission.

Mr Gül, President of Turkey (interpretation)

reminded Ms Durrieu that, due to some difficult experiences in the past, the Turkish Constitution prohibited changes to electoral law in an election year. After the elections which were due to take place in June that year, he expected that the constitution would be completely rewritten. This was an issue which had been under debate for some time and many changes had already been made to the constitution, but all parties agreed that the constitution as a whole needed to be rewritten. The June elections would take place under the current laws in which independent candidates faced no threshold to election.


Thank you. Before I call the next speaker, I remind colleagues that they should not be making speeches, but just asking questions. I call Mr Savvidi, on behalf of the European Democrat Group.

Mr SAVVIDI (Russian Federation) (interpretation)

thanked the President of the Parliamentary Assembly for making a statement about the terror attack in Moscow the previous day. He also thanked the Turkish people for allowing a religious ceremony to take place in an Orthodox monastery in Turkey for the first time in 88 years. He asked President Gül whether, following this, the monastery and the Orthodox religious school in Halki could be restored.

Mr Gül, President of Turkey (interpretation)

said that Turkey respected all religions and that freedom of religion in Turkey was a fundamental right and liberty. All people should be free to practise their beliefs. In the past, religion and politics had become confused and this had led to difficulties. Turkey aimed to remove these difficulties and to respect the beliefs of all peoples whether they were Muslim, non-Muslim, Orthodox, Catholic or even atheist.

With regard to the particular issue raised by Mr Savvidi, he apologised but he was unable to speak on its detail. He gave an example however of an Armenian church in the town of Van where renovation work had been carried out by the state. Part of the problem was that Turkey was large and had many old mosques and other religious buildings. There was therefore much need for restoration work on religious buildings and this work would be carried out without discrimination.

Ms FIALA (Switzerland)

Mr President, thank you for being with us today. As you know, our Schengen border is facing big problems. What Italy and Spain faced some time ago, Greece is facing now. Greece has to deal with about 12 500 refugees a month, who often enter via your country, Turkey, from sub-Saharan Africa, Iran and Afghanistan. How will your country react to the problems for Greece? How many refugees is Turkey dealing with right now?

Mr Gül, President of Turkey (interpretation)

agreed that the issue of refugees was a major problem but this was not a problem confined to Europe. Any fair look at the matter would acknowledge that the migration route was not just through Turkey but was wider across the Mediterranean. Turkey was however aware of the issue, as Turkey was on the migration route from the east and south. Turkey had adopted strict measures to reduce the problem and Turkish authorities worked closely with their counterparts in Greece and Bulgaria. The problem was not confined to Europe: there was also a problem in Turkey. Clearly not everyone could stay where they wished, as sometimes the numbers of migrants and refugees was enormous. Turkey had recently introduced social security reforms to give rights to people living on Turkish soil but more cooperation was needed across Europe.

Mr HUNKO (Germany) (interpretation)

said that the conflict between Turks and Kurds in Kurdistan was the central human rights issue in Europe. In October, he had been part of a German delegation which had visited Diyarbakir. He asked why members of a legal political party, including the mayor of a local town, had been held in detention for two and a half years and had been unable to give their legal defence in their native tongue.

Mr Gül, President of Turkey (interpretation)

said that Turkey was broadening democratic rights and enforcing the rule of law in an attempt to isolate terrorists. He reminded Mr Hunko that no state would allow political violence to occur within its borders, and asked whether politicians or independent courts should decide what is admissible. He hoped that Mr Hunko would agree that he wished to see the courts reach a quick decision and said that, if a defendant was unable to speak Turkish, he could use the language of his choice.

Mr OMTZIGT (Netherlands)

Thank you, Mr Gül, for having made such a clear speech and for your continuing efforts to improve human rights in Turkey and the rest of Europe. You rightly mention the position of Muslim minorities in European countries, which can be precarious. May I ask you to look at the Christian minorities in your own country, including events such as the expropriation of the Mor Gabriel monastery? How will you protect these minorities, and is Turkey committed to answer the questions posed in the resolution passed a year ago on the protection of minorities by February 2011? Are you committed to give us answers on that?

Mr Gül, President of Turkey (interpretation)

said that the Lausanne Treaty of 1923 which had established the Republic of Turkey made explicit reference to the protection of minorities within its borders. Turkey therefore gave equal rights to all its citizens and those rights included freedom of belief. Regarding the particular issue Mr Omtzigt had raised, there were historical issues around land ownership between the state and minority religious foundations which could be dealt with by the Turkish courts and appealed to the European Court of Human Rights since the Court’s judgments were binding in Turkey. He regretted that he did not know the details of the particular case raised but told members of an example of a similar case involving a minority foundation who had taken their case to a Turkish court which had ruled in their favour and ordered the property to be returned by the state.

Mr SALLES (France) (interpretation)

said that he welcomed Mr Gül’s approach to constructive dialogue, but if relations between Israel and its neighbours were deteriorating, did it not mean that Turkey’s role as a mediator was in question?

Mr Gül, President of Turkey (interpretation)

said that Turkey had taken on the role of facilitator in these delicate negotiations not out of any desire to bring prestige to Turkey but to secure peace in the region. If one took a look at the recent past, there were many areas of co-operation and, in his view, Turkey was well-placed to contribute to regional issues. It had been the Israelis and Palestinians who had asked for Turkey’s help and indeed Turkey had been successful in brokering negotiations between Israel and Syria. With regard to Israel, Turkey had an interest in the security of both Israel and Gaza as well as Israel’s negotiations with its other neighbours. It was widely accepted that the embargo in Gaza was illegal – this was the stated view of many international organisations, several of which were still actively engaged in trying to help the people of Gaza. The attack upon the aid convey in international waters had been mistaken. If Israel had lost confidence in Turkey as an intermediary, that was a decision for Israel to take.

Ms GAUTIER (France) (interpretation)

said that Turkey had recently banned several newspapers and prevented an American university lecturer from returning to the country. Recent PKK declarations had been suppressed. She asked what the President was doing to promote freedom of expression.

Mr Gül, President of Turkey (interpretation)

said that he was not aware of the cases mentioned by Ms Gautier, nor were his senior ambassadors who were present in the Chamber. However, he undertook to look into the issue as a matter of urgency.

Ms ZOHRABYAN (Armenia) (interpretation)

asked whether the President would apologise for the genocide committed against the Armenian people under the Ottoman empire. This was an essential step if Turkey wished to join the ranks of civilised nations.

Mr Gül, President of Turkey (interpretation)

hoped the Assembly would not mind if he answered Ms Zohrabyan at length. Turkey did not believe that the term “genocide” was accurate in describing the events to which she had referred. There were however many people who made this claim, and his mind was open as to how this should best be dealt with. He proposed the establishment of a special commission with access to both military and civilian archives and, if necessary, the participation of any third party group which wished to be involved. What had happened 100 years ago, during the First World War, was that the Ottoman Empire had been engaged in fighting on four separate fronts. There was no doubt that many had been killed in the fighting, but the term “genocide” required a specific intention against a group of a particular religious or ethnic background. He noted that, at the time of the alleged genocide, many Armenians had held senior positions in the Ottoman court and had even represented the Empire at a diplomatic level. When Atatürk had founded Turkey, he had been looking to the future and not to the past. Those who argued that genocide had been committed were unable to answer important questions, specifically, who committed the genocide, and how it had been committed. He was certainly deeply sorry for the suffering and pain which had been experienced but he looked to the future in friendship and peace. He could not accept the allegations but was happy to appoint a commission to investigate it fully.

Mr BRAUN (Hungary)

I hope that my question is very simple. Does the Turkish Government intend to cease the discriminatory situation that provides for visa-free entry to citizens of 16 member states of the European Union while visa requirements are still in effect with regard to the other 11 member states, including Hungary?

Mr Gül, President of Turkey (interpretation)

said that they had experienced some problems with visas recently. Over-interpretation of legally binding documents was a particular problem at the present time, but Turkey always sought to work with its partners, particularly the European Union, when changes were needed. He gave the example of a businessman who had been able to send his products to a trade fair, but had not himself been permitted to travel.

Mr ROUQUET (France) (interpretation)

noted that Turkey had negotiated and signed several protocols with Armenia but, in respect of Nagorno-Karabakh, statements made by Turkey with regard to Azerbaijan threatened any real progress.

Mr Gül, President of Turkey (interpretation)

said that Turkey’s foreign policy was to adopt a zero problems approach to its neighbours. For 1 000 years Turkey had lived happily with its neighbours with the exception of the period during First World War. He wanted to normalise relations with Armenia and to this end had gone to the effort of writing to and subsequently visiting Mr Sargsyan in Armenia. He was the first Turkish President to have done so. Mr Sargsyan had subsequently visited Turkey. It was important to deal with the big issues. Everyone recognised the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan and that Armenia was encroaching upon part of the Azeri territory. The Caucasus was a strategically important region and it was essential that it was a safe area of co-operation. It would otherwise form a wall between Europe and Asia and economic development would be compromised. He was determined to deal with the chronic problems but was aware that not all of them could be solved quickly. He hoped that he would be supported in the steps he had taken so far.

Ms TÜRKÖNE (Turkey)

Your Excellency, it is a great pleasure to have you here in our Assembly. I would like to take this opportunity to ask my question in my native language of Turkish.

(The speaker continued in Turkish)

She said that in recent times in the western, and particularly the American, press there had been suggestions that Turkey was moving away from the west towards the east. She asked whether Turkey had shifted its axis.

Mr Gül, President of Turkey (interpretation)

said that, in order to determine whether the axis had shifted, Turkey had to be examined from the perspective of its human rights and the rule of law. If there had been a lack of progress in these areas, then it would be fair to say that there had been a shift. If democracy was however shown to have taken a deeper root, with better standards for women and children, and better transparency in its affairs, then concerns about a shift in axis were not well placed.

Turkey held a particularly strategic geographic position between east and west. It was therefore entitled to examine its position in relation to where it stood with other countries. Other countries, in particular the UK and France, also held a number of different relationships with countries outside the west. Turkey traditionally had good economic relations with the countries with which it had historical ties and Turkey was entitled to maintain these ties. Turkey was a founder member of the Council of Europe in 1949 and was now an accession country to the European Union. Talk therefore about a shift in Turkey’s axis was simply not justified.


We must now conclude the questions to Mr Gül. Mr President, on behalf of the Assembly, I thank you most warmly for your comprehensive address and for the answers that you have given.