Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum from David Barchard



  This paper attempts to identify the main issues involved in Turkish-UK relations. It examines Turkey's main characteristics and considers their impact on issues such as EU enlargement, European defence, and the national interests of the UK. It briefly considers possible options available.


  Turkey is about three times the size of the UK [780,580 sq km] with a slightly larger population [66.5 million in 2001] but lower per capita GDP [$6,000 in 2000 versus $22,800 in the UK]. Electricity production at 125.3 billion Kwh is about a third of that of the UK. Approximately 60 per cent of the population now lives in towns or cities. Population growth, though still around 1 per cent, has begun to brake sharply in the last decade, much in line with the experience of other north Mediterranean countries. At the same time, the country's culture has become essentially urban and modern, dominated by around 35 TV channels and increasingly the Internet. With around 12 million people, Istanbul, Turkey's main commercial centre, is overtaking St. Petersburg and Moscow as Europe's largest city and has a larger economy of its own than some European countries. Since the fall of communism, Istanbul, now a large and lively centre of industry, has to some extent also recovered its former role as a hub for trade in the Balkans, Black Sea, and Near East. The new dependency of the Turkish on trade with Russia however led to a drop of 6 per cent in GDP in 1999 when the Russian economy faltered. There was an even sharper drop in the economy, caused mainly by problems in the banking sector, in 2001. These were also the culmination of decades of economic development financed by inflation because of a shortage of investment. According to the Financial Times early in 2001, annual foreign investment in Turkey compares with what Brazil receives in a fortnight.


  These, and earlier, setbacks have to be set against a long-term pattern of considerable economic dynamism and economic expansion at an average of 5-6 per cent for most of the previous four decades. A return to growth, of around 3 per cent, is likely in 2002. Given the backing of the IMF, medium term economic prospects are probably of a return to sustained growth, though this depends partly on increased access to direct investment from abroad.


  Since 1996 Turkey has had a full customs union for industrial goods with the EU, and has shown its industries can compete in EU markets. In some industries, notably textiles and associated industries, Turkey is the leading supplier of the EU. Despite this, there is an annual Turkish trade deficit with the EU in normal years of around $10 billion. (In 2001 Turkish domestic demand slumped because of the crisis, cutting import demand, while exports to Britain and the EU continued) Turkey thus represents a "profit centre" for the EU, since this deficit is not covered by other financial flows, including financial assistance and private investment. Turkey in fact is a rare example of a country proceeding successfully to customs union with the EU with the minimum of assistance from the Union.


  In 2000, the UK was Turkey's third largest export market and its sixth largest supplier of imports. Turkey's size and increasing affluence means that it is one of Britain's largest trade partners in a wide area. Many British high street names are present in Turkey and there is a substantial British business community in Istanbul.


  Turkey has borders with eight countries and, during the Cold War period, because of its size, it was part of two separate possible strategic "theatres" of conflict: the Balkans and the Caucasus. Turkish foreign policy since the 1920's has been based on two principles: (1) avoiding local conflicts and seeking regional stability through good bilateral relations where possible and (2) emphasising the quest for economic development and higher living standards.


  These pragmatic principles have been repeatedly complicated by the fact that seven of Turkey's eight neighbours were formerly ruled by it in the Ottoman Empire and political currents in at least two of them regard places in Turkey as part of their historic and cultural heritage. This is seen in Turkey as potentially irredentist. These problems are a carry-over from the break-up of the Ottoman Empire with its religiously and culturally mixed population by the Concert of Europe. It needs to be more frequently remembered in Western Europe that, taken overall, the western-backed Christian insurgencies which created the modern map of southeast Europe claimed many more Muslim lives than the other way round—an estimated 5.5 million Ottoman Muslim deaths in total between 1821 and 1923. Substantially larger numbers were displaced and, to a considerable degree, Turkey is a nation of immigrant families from outside its present territories.


  Though perhaps seemingly remote, this historical background is still a factor in Turkish-British and Turkish-European relations. Attitudes towards Turkey in Britain may sometimes be still unconsciously coloured by related prejudices inherited from the past. Presumably few people today in Britain would follow William Gladstone in regarding the Turks as "the one great anti-human specimen of humanity", and holding that " No government ever has so sinned, none has proved itself so incorrigible in sin, or which is the same, so impotent in reformation." Nevertheless there still seems to be a Gladstonian tendency to regard Turkey as "different" from its southeastern European neighbours; to focus attention on perceived shortcomings; and to promote separatist or centrifugal ethnic currents, whether actual or potential. A recent British academic study of North-Eastern Turkey for instance questions the lack of separatist nationalist sentiment among its population. It is amusing to note that while hostile attitudes towards Turkey are relatively constant, the grounds offered for them can change dramatically. In the nineteenth century, Turkey was berated by British liberals for being an Islamic theocracy. Today it comes under fire in the same quarters for its secular system and alleged repression of political Islamists. More fundamentally prejudice leads to a tendency—stronger perhaps in parts of continental Europe than in the UK—to underrate Turkey's strengths and potential.


  The inevitable counterpart inside Turkey to these attitudes is the suspicion that Western Europe is intrinsically hostile to the country and its territorial integrity. These doubts in Turkey sometimes based on personal family memories, fuel scepticism over human rights issues especially among minor officialdom.


  British comment on Turkey sometimes gives the impression that the commentator believes he or she knows more about the Turks and their history than the Turks do themselves. This attitude, which some might describe as `Orientalist', contrasts with the striking poverty of Turkish studies in the UK and paucity of well-informed work about the country, based on at least a secure reading knowledge of Turkish and Turkish history and culture. During the last twenty years, several British universities have wound down Turkish studies programmes. Most of the major British academic specialists on Turkey are approaching or past retirement age. Only one is aged below forty. University courses on Turkey attract much lower numbers than courses on (for example) Latin America. There is also a notable reluctance in the media and arts to empathize with the way tens of millions of mainstream urban Turks live and look at the world. The 250,000 or so Turks living in the UK have so far strikingly failed to develop notable spokesmen, though many say in private that they are puzzled and dismayed about the portrayal of Turkey in the UK. With around a million Britons visiting Turkey as tourists each year, and a considerable number of businessmen also travelling there regularly, direct personal experience and knowledge of the country is growing, but ironically a good deal of the public discussion and information about Turkey in the UK is managed by radical groups, many of them non-Turkish, with antagonistic political agendas.


  The UK was one of the last European Union countries to require a visa from Turkish visitors. During the dozen or so years the visa requirement has been in force, its application has become steadily more severe and is now regarded as the harshest of any European country. It would seem that more than half, perhaps as many as two thirds, of Turks applying to enter the UK are now refused visas. All applicants must pay a non-refundable fee of over £50, travel to Istanbul (since there is only one visa-issuing office in the country), and produce a plethora of personal details about property ownership, income. Essentially travel to Britain is now denied to Turks on average incomes unless on official business. Businessmen complain that they may have to wait up to five months even to get an interview. An English language student I recently sponsored was refused a visa despite my written guarantee because, in the view of the processing officials, he did not have enough English to benefit from a course. Another applicant was refused on the grounds he knew too much English to need to attend a course! The system seems have problems differentiating between bona fide travellers and potential illegal immigrants and bogus asylum seekers. There are numerous complaints about the lack of courtesy of British visa officials and one leading British resident of Istanbul has openly accused the visa office of bad faith. It cannot be desirable that citizens of an industrialised European country and EU applicant are increasingly denied access to the UK, their country's third or fourth largest trading partner and there is an obvious anomaly in a system which allows one million Britons to visit a country each year when almost all of its inhabitants can now not make even a short visit to Britain.


  Turkey made an initial approach for inclusion to the EU in the late 1950's and in 1963 negotiated and signed the Ankara Accord which set up an Association aimed explicitly at eventual full membership via a customs union. Turkey applied for full EU membership in 1987, but its applicant status was not recognized for twelve years. The application, and the Association which preceded it, were motivated by the desire for full integration into the western world in general and Europe in particular, the driving force in Turkish history since the end of the eighteenth century. Opinion polls continue to suggest that there is overwhelming popular support for Turkish EU membership, though qualified by misgivings about EU intentions.


  In the four decades since the Ankara Accord, Turkey has moved steadily closer towards the point where it can assume the economic obligations of membership. It has largely industrialised and per capita income levels are around or even above those of some of the other applicants. As mentioned above, the customs union was achieved on time in 1996, but no date has yet been set for opening membership negotiations. Eventual membership is not guaranteed until negotiations are opened. Turkish observers are concerned by the possibility of a Greek and/or Greek Cypriot veto on the opening of negotiations with Turkey. They also note that the Nice Summit in December 2000 avoided signalling a full commitment to eventual Turkish membership and did not identify the numbers involved in Turkey's post-accession entitlement to representation in EU institutions. Nice created a model for a "27-member" Community. The accession of a 28 member, ie Turkey, will trigger a transition to a new EU structure in which not all members send at least one Commissioner to Brussels. This would seem likely to make Turkish accession a generally unpopular change for reasons unconnected with Turkey itself.


  Because of its progress in commercial policy and related areas, Turkey has been in a position for some time to negotiate on some of the 31 Chapters in Accession negotiations. The National Programme for the Adoption of the Acquis, the keystone of the accession process, was published in April 2001. There is no doubt that negotiations with the EU have been a powerful spur to constitutional and legal reforms, and that the pace of reforms has accelerated—perhaps driven by the desire of Turkish public opinion, including business leaders, to ensure that the door to Europe is not closed. There has been a perceptible increase in public interest in, and understanding of, the EU. Things seem to have gone very smoothly in the preliminary talks in several EU and Turkish official committees on accession issues.


  Progress has been much less issue on the political issues. The topics which have proved most recalcitrant in the Turkish accession programme, relate to Cyprus and rights for ethnic minorities, including the question of permitting education in Turkey's two main Kurdish languages. In a historical perspective, these are direct continuations of the `mixed population' problems which embroiled the European powers in the affairs of the Near East in the 19 century. During its first quarter of a century, the EU was effectively neutral in many of these disputes, but its position on Cyprus is now inevitably closely aligned with that of Greece, while in 1999, under the Santer Commission, the EU failed to distance itself convincingly from supporters of the PKK during the flight from Syria of Abdullah Ocalan.


  Suspicions of this kind in Turkey about European intentions were revived in December 2001 when the EU excluded the main two Turkish terrorist organisations, the PKK [Kurdistan Worker's Party] and the DHKP/C [Revolutionary Popular Liberation Party and Front] from its list of banned international terrorist groups. Turkey had asked for these groups, both of which have injured and killed EU nationals (including Britons) among many others, to be included.


  From its own point of view, Turkey is being asked by the EU to take a leap in the dark on issues which it has traditionally seen as essential to its integrity. Turkish political opinion currently appears to be divided on how to respond. On one side there are those politicians who recognize that pluralism on issues such as cultural identity and languages is an international, and specifically a European, legal norm and who are prepared to believe EU assurances that this does not mean endorsing separatist politics. One the other are those who think that national integrity can only be safeguarded through permanent severe prohibitions. The balance seems to be tilting in favour of the first group, not least since it is can be plausibly argued that Turkey's integrity and national interests would be best protected within the EU. Permitting some education in Kurdish languages however remains very contentious. Against this, Turkish society today is vastly more pluralist and secularist in outlook than it was one or two generations ago and many young Turks regard the restrictions as anachronistic. Yet until work on liberalising the constitution and related legislation is completed—and seen to be operating in practice along lines familiar elsewhere—it is unlikely that the EU will rule that Turkey complies fully with the political criteria of Copenhagen and that accession negotiations can begin. The issue is complicated by the fact that the adaptations which Turkey is being asked to make were not required of some existing EU members.


  There seem to be no satisfactory alternatives to trying to find ways to speed up the accession process, at least to the point where negotiations can begin. By committing itself to accepting the Greek Cypriots as full members of the EU on their own if necessary, the Union has imposed a sort of guillotine on itself in this regard, since it may be assumed that unless negotiations with Turkey have already been opened, the Greek Cypriots will veto them permanently after their accession. The accession process, as already noted, is a stimulus to economic and administrative progress and pluralism in Turkey. Deferment of it, for whatever reason, could well weaken Turkey's ability to cope with its internal problems, from corruption to radical Islamism, and the international impact of these problems in a strategically-placed country of 67 million people cannot be discounted. Deferment could also exacerbate problems surrounding emigration, while a smoothly proceeding integration process may reduce them. Integration into Europe has reduced the propensity for large-scale migration into northern Europe from other Mediterranean countries, and with larger flows of investment and trade, a similar effect can be expected in Turkey. Equally the exclusion of Turkey from the EU, even on a temporary basis, might well create an unmanageable migration outflow similar to that of the southern border of the United States.


  In any case, a realistic deferment option does not exist. Attempts to create a `special relationship' as a substitute for membership, such as that recently advocated by Mr Rheinhold Bocklett, Bavaria's European Affairs Minister, will simply not be acceptable to government or public opinion in Turkey and there will continue to be sustained pressure for the EU to honour its commitments. It was held with earlier applications that public opinion in the applicant countries could not be rebuffed. It is hard to see why the situation should be different for the Turks, not least since their own experience since Greek accession in 1981 has shown them how essential it is to be present inside European meetings when decisions are taken. A special relationship will not cope with this requirement.


  The alternative scenario (assuming current efforts for an agreed resolution of the differences between the Greek and Turkish Cypriots fail) is that Greek and/or Greek Cypriot vetoes kill any foreseeable prospects of EU membership for Turkey. This is likely to be an uncomfortable outcome with severely destabilising effects both for the region and for EU-Turkish and British-Turkish relations. At best it would mean a missed opportunity—a serious failure to extend European values, and the pluralism and prosperity which spring from them to an area which is historically intrinsically part of the European system. At worst it could mean a slide over time towards a serious direct confrontation between the EU and a large regional power, essentially, on the basis of nationalist historical disputes.


  Turkey followed strongly pro-Western defence policies throughout the Cold War, despite some experimentation with "Third World" type foreign policies in the 1960's and 1970's. By insulating the Arab Middle East from the Soviet Union, it played a part in ensuring stability in the area which was too often taken for granted. Since the end of the Cold War, it has actually expanded its military cooperation with the United States and NATO by permitting use of Incirlik Base, at Adana close to the eastern Mediterranean, and latterly some other bases in regional conflicts. This closer military cooperation between Turkey and its western partners began during the Gulf War with the late President Turgut Özal but has continued in the post-September 11 `War Against Terrorism.' Limited numbers of British and also French military personnel are now present alongside the Americans at Incirlik. This support, particularly in the Gulf War, has been expensive for Turkey, in terms of both lost cross-border trade with Iraq, (variously estimated at up to $40 billion) and of a much less friendly stance towards Turkey in the Arab world. At the same time Turkey appears to have drawn informally somewhat closer to Israel.


  Because of its perception of itself as an exposed frontier country in a very uncertain region, Turkey devotes a substantial slice of its resources to military spending—about $10.6 billion in 1999 or 5.6 per cent of GNP. (This compares with about $37 billion and 2.7 per cent of GDP in the UK; and $6.12 billion and 4.91 per cent of GDP in Turkey's neighbour, Greece.) The Armed Forces are popular and generally regarded as the country's most effective institution and the guarantors of its stability.


  Turkey's role as a bulwark in the region extends to its firm opposition to terrorism. Turkey does not permit Middle Eastern terrorist groups to operate on its territory or to use Turkey as a transit route to Europe. If it had been more permissive towards such groups, the impact of Middle Eastern terrorism on Europe would surely have been much greater.


  Turkey's military resources are among the most important assets that it offers the EU as a potential candidate for accession. Its resources are already potentially extremely significant in international operations to cope with regional disputes, from the Balkans to Afghanistan, especially when a Muslim element is involved. Turkey's misgivings over the emergence of a European army seem to derive from the possibility that, if it was excluded from decision making and planning, it could one day find Europe's new military capacity being deployed against it: for example in a divided Cyprus. So far however the EU has shown limited interest in the potential of a military partnership with Turkey.


  Turkey has not however tried to block, as it could have done, changes in the architecture of European defence over the last half decade. It ratified the expansion of NATO to include former Warsaw pact countries which are now ahead of it in the line for EU accession. Last year, it accepted a compromise position on ESDP in the "Ankara Text". Behind this however lies a confident awareness of Turkey's continuing strategic importance and the certainty that its close bilateral relations with the United States will continue for the foreseeable future. However Turkey's willingness to be flexible reflects its expectations of progress in its overall relations with the EU and a basic trust that the new European force will not become a factor in any Greek-Turkish disputes.


  Turkey's aspirations for membership of Europe and its relatively advanced degree of industrialisation and urbanisation make its candidacy for EU accession a logical step. A successful Turkish accession should bring many benefits to both sides, in terms of the reduction of regional tensions, increased prosperity, and the spread of pluralist European values in the Near East and beyond. Blockage of Turkish accession will exacerbate regional problems. As the UK continues to be closely involved in the region, it may experience the impact of any failure more acutely than some of its EU partners. Most of the obstacles and complications in the way of Turkish EU accession arise, directly or indirectly, from ethnic and cultural tensions, and long-standing western prejudices, dating back to the late Ottoman period. These to some extent complicate even the good working relations which normally exist between the UK and Turkey. However Turkey's size and large population means that the task of `digesting' it in the EU will be a formidable and prolonged one and both sides have to be realistic in recognizing this fact and coping with it. There needs to be a quantitative and qualitative improvement in British understanding of Turkey, and a shift away from reliance for information about the country, on groups with axes to grind. More needs to be taught about Turkey in schools and universities. Turkish participation should be more frequently sought—and perhaps more broadly based—at international meetings, seminars, and other occasions. Efforts need to be made to ensure that an effective and thoughtful dialogue replaces the present tendency to talk too often in stylised mutual accusations. In the post-September 11 world, Turkey's strategic role for the western world as a whole, and the EU in particular, will remain very important for the foreseeable future, especially if there is a reconfiguration of American partners in the region, away from the Arabian Peninsula and towards Russia. It is important that efforts to ensure an effective and deepening partnership with Turkey continue and that in this area, as in others, any possible drift towards an adversarial relationship for essentially secondary reasons is forestalled.

David Barchard

January 2002

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