Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum from Dr Philip Robins, St Antony's College, Oxford


  1.  Turkey is a sizable and relatively populous country, with an economy in serious crisis, about which most opinion formers in the UK and Western Europe are largely ignorant. Moreover, there are perhaps only a handful of independent experts on Turkey in the UK. Yet over the last decade and a half understanding Turkey has been a key need for policymakers working on a broad range of issues from European and Nato enlargement, through Balkans stabilisation, to issues of conflict in the Middle East and Afghanistan.

  2.  Keeping UK relations on an even keel with Turkey is difficult. In some areas, such as geostrategy, Turkey is a like-minded and valuable state. In others, notably human rights, Turkey is right out of step with the liberal norms of the post-Cold War era. Distributed across the continuum of bilateral relations are other important issues, such as: commercial ties (good, but with greater potential); Cyprus (poor, but improving slightly); and illegal drugs and immigration (greatly improved of late). Aggregating these diverse experiences into stable and consistent policy is therefore an enduring challenge.

  3,  Turkey is in many ways a natural ally for the UK. Territorially (Cyprus possibly excepted), it is a status quo power. It has an essentially Atlantic security outlook. It has exerted a moderating influence in adjacent, regional conflicts, notably in the Balkans and the Transcaucasus. It is a willing participant in international peace-keeping (in addition to Afghanistan, it sent major troop contingents to Bosnia, Somalia and Albania). It is concerned at the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, especially in the Middle East.

  4,  It is, however, in some areas of its domestic affairs that Turkey is perceived to be "not like us". This is not for religious reasons, but because of a combination of its poor record on human rights and political inclusion. International NGOs will testify to Turkey's enduring problems with respect to torture in police stations and deaths in custody. While in themselves disturbing and abhorrent, they do not take place as a result of deliberate policy. More tangible in this regard are the raft of formal measures (eg the 10% electoral barrage) that hinder the ability of the country's moderate Kurdish ethno-nationalists and Islamists to play an effective political role within the parliamentary system.

  5.  One bi-product of the PKK-led Kurdish insurgency, at its height between 1989 and 1996, and the Turkish security response was growing political corruption and the emergence of Turkey as a prime factor in the refining and smuggling of hard drugs to Europe. Western law enforcement agencies complained about the disappointing level of cooperation on the issue from Ankara. This situation began to change five years ago. Over the last two years Turkish cooperation has been very good. While drugs gangs with connections to Turkey are still believed to dominate the heroin trade in Britain, hard evidence exists to suggest that such gangs are beginning to turn away from Turkish territory as a refining centre and smuggling route.

  6,  There is good reason for believing that Ankara's more collegiate approach over hard drugs, and greater flexibility in other areas of policy, was in part spurred by the Helsinki decision of the European Council to bestow candidate status upon Turkey. This illustrates the extent to which a pro-Western orientation remains at the heart of Turkey's foreign and security strategy. The last 15 years have been a bruising period for Turkey. The country has been overtaken in the queue for EU membership by a swathe of countries that were until recently self-declared enemies of the West. Turks have to understand that they have not been singled out for negative treatment, but that their future relations with the EU will largely be a function of objective factors. On the other hand, EU leaders and opinion-formers need to be sensitive to the Turkish elite's disappointed expectations and act accordingly.

  7.  US relations with Turkey were mercurial until the mid 1990s, when Washington discovered the importance of presentation and symbolism in managing bilateral relations. A stream of high level visits (not by any means exclusive to the security sector) have taken place over the last five years. This culminated in the extraordinarily successful visit of President Clinton in 1999. Since then Turkey's residual anti-Americanism of the 1960s and 1970s has faded. British and European politicians could learn much from this American engagement.

  8.  Cyprus and Greece continue to be worrying areas of Turkey's foreign relations. The atmospherics in Greek-Turkish relations have improved considerably since the "earthquake diplomacy" of 1999. Nevertheless, there has been a worrying failure to date to use this cordial atmosphere to settle outstanding substantive bilateral problems, especially relating to the Aegean.

  9.  Cyprus continues to be the touchiest of Ankara's priorities. The security concerns expressed on behalf of the Turkish population of Cyprus are real. It remains unclear as to whether Turkey has a strategic reason for retaining a strong military presence on the island. Turkish public opinion is sensitive on the subject of the future of the island. The prestige invested in Cyprus by the military, together with politicians like current premier Bulent Ecevit, helps explain the disproportionate attention the issue receives in Ankara.

  10.  Bilateral relations between Britain and Turkey are generally good, especially now that the MED-TV and Ilisu Dam issues are behind us. The UK played a useful role in negotiating with Turkey on the issue of ESDP. Britain needs to do more to cultivate that relationship, with an official visit by Tony Blair being a good place to start. Other measures should follow, such as greater funding for Turkish studies in the UK and more money for research on Turkey and for joint projects with Turkish institutions. Civil society also needs to play its part if bilateral relations are to acquire greater ballast and hence avoid the fluctuating fortunes of a long and uneven diplomatic agenda.

  Dr Philip Robins is a University Lecturer in the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Oxford and a Fellow of St Antony's College. He is also the Director of the University's Programme on Contemporary Turkey. He joined Oxford University in 1995 following eight years at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, at Chatham House, where he was head and founder of the Middle East Programme. He is the author of "Turkey and the Middle East" (Pinter/RIIA, 1991). His "Suits and Uniforms: Turkish Foreign Policy since the Cold War" will be published by Hurst in the late spring.

Dr Philip Robins

21 January 2002

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