Interview with Hannes Swoboda

20 October 2014, Istanbul

Hannes Swoboda is a Mercator-IPC Senior Fellow. He was elected as President of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D) in 2012. He joined the European Parliament after Austria's accession to the EU as a member of the Social Democratic Party in Austria (SPÖ).

He has focused on south-east Europe, central-Asia and Russia and European integration. He has great experience and knowledge on foreign affairs, urban development, education, health and labour policies as he served in the Vienna Assembly and Municipal Council for many years representing the interest of employees.

Melisa Mendoza: How do you see the European Union's approach towards the developments happened in the Middle East starting with the Arab Spring?

Hannes Swoboda: I think Arab Spring, for many people, created hope towards change, democracy, civil liberties and economic development. Probably it was a bit naive to think that it will go so easily. There is now a big dissapointment for many of the countries, especially in Egypt but also in Libya for a different reason. This picture is giving a fragile, or not very concise, policy for the European Union. And probably we have to differentiate between different countries. Morocco is different than Tunisia and Algeria. The European Union has to re-consider that this is not one movement or one Spring and one area but instead a different- structured area.

Melisa Mendoza: Do you think the European Union approached the Arab Spring countries as one single entity?

Hannes Swoboda: I think there was some variation. Nevertheless, they tried to recognize one general development, more or less similar in the different areas. They were afraid that the the Islamist movement, namely the Muslim Bortherhood, will be too strong. Nobody probably expected the backlash in Egypt for example, the military coming in. I think, it was thought more or less as one Spring and one develeopment However, example in Syria, puts it very clearly that it was very simplistic to think the same things were happening in Syria and in Tunisia for example.

Melisa Mendoza: You said it was naive to think that the change will happen easily. Do you think the European Union was also naive in this sense?

Hannes Swoboda: Of course it was naive but I may say that the Turkish policy, in some ways, was naive in thinking now is the time for big Turkish influence. We were all, from the outside, about naive in thinking; first, this is one region and one development and we do not have to differentiate. Secondly, if you look at the history of revolutions, revolution in Russia and France, they seldom come into a immideate positive effect. Revolutions very often destroy something without offering an alternative or building something democratic and progressive. These are the two mistakes we made; regional differentiation did not happen and the simplistic view that revolutions always bring improvement to the situation.

Melisa Mendoza: Which aspects of the European policy have failed to tackle with the Arab Spring? What could be done about these in the future?

Hannes Swoboda: First of all, we have to have a long- term view instead of short- term policies and short- term changes. Secondly, we have to have a strong economic cooperation with these countries; openning up markets, giving the people chance to export to the European Union. Thirdly, we have to have a stronger dialogue with the intellectual capacity, the younger generation who wants to study at the European universities. Fourthly perhaps, we can think how we can have a more fruitful dialgue with all the people from the Middle East countries living in the European countries about their former home- countries. If you think of France and how many people from Tunisia living in France. I do not think we take it serious enough that we have to contribute to the positive development of our neighbourhood.

Melisa Mendoza: Turkey and the EU have 35 negotiation chapters. Since 2005, 14 chapters have been opened while 18 of them remained blocked by the EU Council and some Member States. There has been quite a standstill in the accession negotiations for some time now. How do you think this affects the policies towards the Middle East region of both the European Union and Turkey?

Hannes Swoboda: I think Turkey is a very important country, also for Europe concerning the whole region. If we do not find a way of good cooperation and good connection between the European Union and Turkey, both of us will be weaker. Turkey without the European Union supporting Turkey, Turkey will have a aweaker position and vice versa. Therefore, the attitudes and policies in the region are bad for both. We should open more chapters and continue negotiations knowing that it will not be easy to come to a conclusion. From the European Union's out point of view, it is important not to lose Turkey as a partner in the region. If I look at the criticism that Turkey is not intervening Syria with troops, it is a bit hypocritic of the European Union. Nobody is intervening in Syria through sending troops. Why should Turkey, who is in the forefront, do it? I think we lost a bit of the understanding of each other; what kind of policies we have, why we act in certain ways, what the other side wants us to react and so on. Membership is only one issue and we should no always think about membership. It is also about strong relationship between two very important factors for the development of the whole Mediterranean region.

Melisa Mendoza: If the European Union and Turkey cooperate, do you think that they can develop a better policy towards the Middle East?

Hannes Swoboda: I think so. I understand Turkey's current position towards Israel, especially after what happened some years ago. On the other hand, Turkey is being a good speaker to Israel and Palestine. We could together, the European Union and Turkey, put more pressure on Israel to help the Palestinians find a solution. It can be a two- states- solution or something else. Also with the Syrian and Iranian issues, cooperation between Turkey and the European Union would be very helpful.

Melisa Mendoza: There are heavy criticisms in Turkey about the European Union being indifferent to the refugee flow to Turkey and Israel attacks on Gaza. How would you interpret those criticisms?

Hannes Swoboda: I agree that the European Union should have done much more to help refugees in Turkey, in Lebanon and Jordan. Turkey did a lot much more than the European Union did. This is criticism is correct. Europe, after what happened in the Second World War and with the Holocaust, is a bit hesitant to act in the Israeli- Palestinian conflict. Turkey puts positive attitude towards the settlement, for the fulfillment of what has been decided in 1947 to have to states; Israeli and the Palestinian state. So, some of the criticism is correct but I think we have to go for future- oriented policies out of the criticism.

Melisa Mendoza: Chapter 31 of EU accession negotiations on Foreign, Security and Defense Policy has been blocked by the government of Cyprus since 2009. Turkey cannot fully integrate to the security bodies of Europe. What do you think is the implication of this on the cooperation between the European Union and Turkey in terms of involving in a mutual security policy towards the Middle East? Do you think this chapter invites some missing opportunities for the two?

Hannes Swoboda: Yes I think so. I can understand some of the grievances, some of the feelings Cyprus government has about Turkey not for fulfilling the Ankara Protocol. But, I think it is not useful to block any of the chapters. At the end of the day, all member countries have to agree in any way. So, it does not help to block chapters; chapters in energy, chapters of 23, 24 and 31. I think it would be very good to include Turkey much stronger in the common security policy for the whole area. We see it everyday how important that would be. And again this kind of blocking brings Turkey away from Europe instead of closer to Europe. It will not help on the Cyprus issue and maybe it will even have the contrary consequence. So, it is not very clever, it is narrow-minded from the Cyprus side to act in that way.

Melisa Mendoza: What is the European Union's general policy towards the Islamic State? What is going to happen in the future in terms of policy making?

Hannes Swoboda: I think the United States and Europe's military intervention in Iraq had very large to foster than hands, whole turmoil out of which Islamic State is coming. So, I think it was a big mistake to intervene. Not that I like Saddam Hussein and his regime, but if you think about all the people killed, all the destruction in Iraq and all the situation we have now is absolutely unjustified to have intervened. Secondly, what we have to do is to strengthen some old local forces, military action, like bombing, may help in some way but will not solve the issues. All the population who are fighting against the Islamic State should be strengthened. I think what we will not try to do is to solve several issues at the same time. Of course we have the Syrian question, we have the Islamic State, specifically in the question of Kurdish population especially in Syria. We have to have a comprehensive strategy. If we only attack the Islamic State without thinking about what to do about Kurdish population in the region, how to proceed the question of Syria we will not be very successful.

Melisa Mendoza: There are a considerable number of people joining the Islamic State from the European Union countries. Is there a policy in the Union to tackle this problem?

Hannes Swoboda: Yes and no. I think the lack of integration of Muslim population in many of countries in Europe helped some of these younger people to join the Islamic State. On the other hand, you always have some extreme Islam radical groups, you have them in Turkey, you have them in all countries. You will not prevent extremist people to join these groups. But, the lack of full acceptance, recognition, integration, of parts of the Muslim population in Europe helped to justify these in the eyes of some of these young people that they had to do something because they have been repudiated, they have not been accepted and recognized well in European countries. I think it will be the biggest mistake to get less integration for the Muslim population. We need more integration, more offices, more acceptance of Muslims if they come from Turkey, Iran and Arab countries. We need more integration, not less.

Melisa Mendoza: So you think the European Union needs more welcoming policies towards the Muslims.

Hannes Swoboda: Yes, on the basis of our general values and principles. We should have more wakening policies towards Muslim population, and accept the Islam as one of the religions in Europe together with the other ones. The integration and full acceptance of Muslim people is absolutely necessary.

Melisa Mendoza: There was already an existing prejudice and negative opinion so to speak towards the Muslim people in terms of public opinion. Do you think this negative opinion will increase in the society with Muslim people joining the Islamic State from Europe?

Hannes Swoboda: It is the danger, but I have no concrete figures yet. This leads to strange division and for this important public policies to fight against these kind of prejudices in together with Muslim representatives. I understand some of the Muslim representatives do not want to apologize for those people because they say, "it has nothing to do with us, why should we apologize?" Muslim leaders can come together with other political leaders or other religious leaders. They can make it clear that Muslim religion is a peaceful religion and it is being misused by these people who are always maintaining God but at the same time violating the God's principles and values of the Bible and Qur'an, whatever you take.

Melisa Mendoza: The perception that the European Union is being indifferent to the refugees especially coming from Syria and the high number of people joining the Islamic State from Europe. Do you think these have a relationship?

Hannes Swoboda: Not really. I think basically it is an anti-migration sentiment that many of our citizens have. There is also the lack of making it clear to the public that we live in a world which has much more migration flow than before especially when there is a deadful war in Syria. However, I do not think that it will be useful to invite millions of Syrians to Europe because they will want to go back to Syria. They do not want to be too far away. But at least we should help much more the countries that are helping and taking up so many refugees.

Melisa Mendoza: The Euroskeptic parties have been quite successful in the 2014 European Parliament elections and are expected to be very active in the Parliament's Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs Committee, which deals with immigration and asylum issues. What kind of implications do you think this would have on the European Union migration policy towards the refugee crisis that has surfaced as a result of the Arab Spring?

Hannes Swoboda: It depends on the pro-European forces. It depends on how courageous and strong they are. I hope they are. I see some positive developments in some countries, seeing that there has to be a common positive action of the different member countries on the question of migration. Of course there will be a strong attack from the right wing. So it is still in a fragile situation but I hope that all the responsible political forces will not compromise with the right wing on the migration issue.

Melisa Mendoza: What are the future polices of the European Union on the issue of Syria in general and specifically about Assad?

Hannes Swoboda: I think it was a bit naive to think that pushing Assad away would be easy as it was in in Egypt with Mubarak or like Bin Ali in Tunisia. Syria was a country where you have different religious and ethnic groups and they had a minimum amount of respect and acceptance and the possibility to practice their religion. Secondly, some of the radical groups came into Syria and spread the message that they will not respect these religious and ethnic differences. That of course gave Assad some strength in fighting against these different groups. Nevertheless just after seeing what these radicals are doing, we should find a solution. We should find a concept that we can try to get rid of Assad but try to do it in a way that we can get the majority of the population on our side. For that we also need the cooperation of the Kurds in Syria, and of course of Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran and finally also Russia in the sense that the fragile equilibrium in the whole Middle East is not destroyed. I think that it would be naive to think we can just push aside Iran and Russia and do it alone as the United States, Europe and Turkey. I think if we really want to have a solution we have to invite all of them into finding a solution, even if the Geneva Conference failed at that time. I think we have to restart and find an equilibrium for the whole region that can bring peace and development to Syria. We have a new high representative, Foreign Minister of the European Union, Federica Mogherini and she will work on this issue. If we come to some agreement with Iran on the nuclear issue it will be easier for them to concentrate on the other issues. As I said, it also very much depends on how we deal with the nuclear issue in Iran.