Europe’s relationship with a changing Middle East is contentious. To better understand this relationship, EC’s editor Fatih Seyhanoglu interviewed Marietje Schaake. Marietje is a Member of the European Parliament for the Dutch Democratic Party (D66). She explains European- Middle Eastern relations and the EU’s agenda and foreign policy. Fatih Seyhanoglu, Encompassing Crescent, 30.11.2013 Fatih Seyhanoglu: Where were you born and raised? Marietje Schaake: I was born and raised the Netherlands. FS: Where were you educated? Marietje Schaake: I went to university in Amsterdam and in the United States. FS: What drew you in Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe ? You seem more leftist than liberal with your political statement about EU foreign policy. Would you consider yourself a liberal or leftist? Marietje Schaake: My party, D66, feels very much at home in the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe. We believe in the economic benefits of the EU, for example in the areas of the internal market and free trade, but also that the EU is more than an economic community: a community of values. We hold the view that the EU should foster and protect these values at home and across the globe, a profoundly liberal view which I share. Through its economic power, the EU has the ability to further democracy and freedom. I consider myself a progressive liberal, and do not believe in thinking along the lines of ´left´ and ´right´. FS: What do you see as the prospect for Europe – Middle East relations in the future? What does the present situation mean for the future of Europe-Middle East relations? What do you see are the priorities on EU’s agenda? Marietje Schaake: After the uprisings in North-Africa and the Middle-East, the EU has changed its strategy from a more interest based approach to a more values based approach. I would like to see human rights and fundamental freedoms even more firmly at the heart of European policies. The new motto for relations between Europe and the Middle East is ´more for more´, which indicates that the EU will give more loans, aid and market access when countries enforce more reforms towards respect for human rights and democracy. These words sound nice but have to be implemented ambitiously. The priorities for the EU should always be to focus on the population, for example by supporting civil society organisations and by looking at education and job creation. Beyond that the EU cares deeply about respect for minority rights, women’s rights and freedom of the media and speech, both online and offline. Europe and the Middle East are tied by deep economic and strategic interests, therefore relations between the two are crucial and will continue to be so in the future. FS: I’m not sure that EU knows exactly what it wants with Middle East. There is some uncertainty on the Middle Eastern/ Turkey/ Iran side as well. As an Dutch Member of the European Parliament Marietje Schaake, you calls on EU High Representative Catherine Ashton to open a delegation of the European Union in Iran. why do you think EU should open delegation in Iran? with this move, is European Community trying to establish itself as a political power speaking with one voice against US? Marietje Schaake: The EU is a key player when it comes to the nuclear negotiations with Iran. Additionally, human rights are of great concern for us. It is therefore helpful for the EU to have a diplomatic representation in Tehran, to be close by to address points of concern. As the new Iranian president seems to be steering Iran on a new course, the EU has even more reason to see whether the words promising a new opening will result in actions. Opening a delegation in Tehran would be a good way to do this, and would not only provide for contacts with the government, but also with the people of Iran. It is important that the EU shows that it is a power with different priorities than the US, we have our own priorities, and have for example always sought to make sure there was a clear difference in how we approached the leadership and the population. FS: Also, is it (opening a delegation of the European Union) going to stop executions of Kurdish activist, torture and rape in prisons in Iran? Marietje Schaake: Opening a delegation in Iran would be a way for the EU to directly engage with the Iranian regime, to try to improve the human rights situation for all Iranians. Actual change will depend on the Iranian regime itself. I hope that this will happen and that the reforms that have been promised will translate into actions. FS: What does the opening a delegation of the European Union in Iran mean for EU foreign policy toward Israel? Marietje Schaake: Israel is a partner of the EU, but one with whom we also have difficult conversations about human rights and the treatment of the Palestinian population. The opening of a diplomatic representation does not have anything to do with the EU´s relation with Israel. FS: What does the Egyptian Military coup of July 3 2013 mean for EU foreign policy? How does EU play a role to end this conflict? Marietje Schaake: Egypt is a crucial country in the Middle-East because of the leading role it could play in the region. The EU has always said that political dialogue in Egypt should include all political groups, we have repeatedly condemned the violence and called for reform. While the EU can advise and offer assistance in many fields, in the end Egypt will have to carve out its own future. The EU´s aid packages have de facto been frozen for a year. I believe there should have been stronger political condemnations of the abuse of power, whether it was by the Muslim Brotherhood when Morsi did a power grab through the Constitutional Declaration, or whether it is the abuse of power by the military, which I have consistently condemned as well. FS: How do you perceive the future for Kurds in the Europe – Middle East relations in the long run? Marietje Schaake: The European Parliament has always called for peaceful settlement of the conflict in Turkey. The increasing fragmentation of the Syrian war along sectarian and ethnic lines is a very worrying development which means that, even if the war was brought to an end, the conflict would not be over. Across the Middle-East, ethnic, or religious minorities often face repression or unequal rights. In diplomatic relations with these countries we must keep placing abuses of human rights at the top of the agenda. FS: In March 2001, six months before the September 11th bombing of the World Trade Center in New York City, the Taliban destroyed two ancient statues of the Buddha called Bamiyan in an attempt to cleanse the country of Afghanistan of what they perceived as Hindu heresy. On the other hand, Mayor of Diyarbakir, Abdullah Demirbas, By introducing Cultures Street Model to all the historical streets in Suriçi; he is aiming to gain the city’s unique historical and cultural textile again. Cultures Street Project is the continuation of Gazi Street and Yenikapı Street Renovation Project and at that part of the street which extends to Synagogue by making renovation studies; religion structures (Surg Gregos Church, Şeyh Matar- Four Legs Minaret- Mosque, Mor Petyum Church and Synagogue) and traditional civil architectural historical houses and Pasha Bath has been restored. Do you think Kurds can play important role for democratization of Turkey/Middle East? Marietje Schaake: For a lasting peace and functioning democracy, people should have their human rights respected and all groups need to be included in the political dialogue, regardless of faith or ethnicity. It is equally important that minorities address potential grievances in peaceful ways, and do not resort to violence or terrorism. Such aggressive acts do not advance the plight of ordinary people, and can make relationships much more difficult. FS: What are the greatest obstacles to human rights today in Turkey or Middle East? Marietje Schaake: The lack of peace, the rule of law and inclusive democracy restricts people’s opportunities, freedoms and rights. That is a problem across the Middle-East. Oppression of the many by the few is not democratic, but neither is oppression of the few by the many. Real democracy is built on a political reality in which everyone is able to voice their opinion and in which those in power also listen. There need to be checks and balances as well as guarantees of basic rights for all. FS: How do you see the situation of human rights in Turkey since the AKP Government? Marietje Schaake: The AKP Government has made progress in some areas, but at the same time there is a long list of problems related to human rights and the rule of law that the government needs to urgently address. Much needs to change before Turkey is a mature and liberal democracy. Democracy is more than one man one vote, and requires a separation of powers. The violent crackdown of the Gezi park protests, but also the continued imprisonment of journalists and human rights activists are of great concern for me. I believe that the EU should remain engaged with Turkey and made accession a benefit for the entire Turkish population. Millions of people showed this summer that they want the same rights as those that the EU stands for. FS: How do you see the refugee crisis in EU and how do you think EU solve this crisis? Marietje Schaake: The refugee crisis as a result of the war in Syria is of great concern to the EU. We have already provided 2 billion Euros and much more is needed to provide basic aid. We must prevent a regional escalation of violence, and look towards safe access to aid workers. Crisis of such scale are difficult to solve for the EU alone, but we do our best to manage it. It is important for other countries in the Middle East who have pledged aid, to also actually transfer the promised funds. The Syrian refugee crisis is one the international community must deal with together. I hope it will also lead to a sense of urgency to find a solution in the Geneva II talks in January. Fatih Seyhanoglu is a self-exiled Kurdish journalist and founder Encompassing Crescent, an online monthly magazine of opinion and editorials regarding issues affecting our globally interconnected world.