UK-Turkey relations and Turkey's regional roleWritten evidence from Sir David Logan

The Author

I was a Turkish specialist in the Diplomatic Service, serving in the political section of the British Embassy in Ankara from 1966-1970 and as Ambassador to Turkey from 1997-2001. I am chair of the British Institute at Ankara, which supports and enables research in Turkey and the Black Sea region in the fields of history, archaeology and related social sciences. I was until recently a non-executive director of a British company operating in Turkey and of a Turkish company listed on the London Stock Exchange.

Summary of Evidence

This paper addresses the six questions on which the Call for Evidence states that the Committee would particularly welcome submissions. It can be summarised as follows:

(i)My personal positive experience of the work of British posts in Turkey in support of British business.

(ii)The reasons why, thanks to the development of Turkish foreign policy and to growing prosperity, Turkey is an increasingly important foreign and security policy partner in the region.

(iii)Why it is unhelpful to regard Turkey as a political model for MENA countries, even though her political stability and economic success are widely admired in the region.

(iv)The importance of a new constitution and of better political practice in Turkey.

(v)Although accession to the EU is not a short term objective, the long term importance of Turkish membership is greater than ever. This section suggests steps which HMG could take to sustain and strengthen the relationship both multilaterally and bilaterally in a period of low momentum in the formal accession process.

(vi)The energy relationship is complex, but closer cooperation with Turkey on energy could help the accession negotiations and, equally, progress towards Turkish political integration into the EU would be an asset in achieving European energy security.


(i) The British government’s efforts to strengthen UK-Turkey’s relations, particularly in the economic and commercial spheres

1. The British Embassy in Ankara and the Directorate of Trade Promotion in Istanbul were active, helpful and supportive throughout the period (2004–10) when I was a director of a British company operating in Turkey. The reasons why its project, which was potentially the largest “greenfield” British investment in Turkey (ie one which was not the result of a take-over or of the privatisation process there), failed fall outside the questions raised in the call for evidence.

(ii) Turkey as a partner for the Government’s foreign and security policy

2. Turkey’s geographical location, her historical (Ottoman) links and her shared (Muslim) religion are assets not otherwise available to the UK among our NATO allies and EU partners. Potentially, therefore, Turkey is a helpful partner for the UK in a strategically important region.

3. However, before the advent of the AKP government, Turkish governments regarded all Turkey’s neighbours as problematical and potentially hostile. Besides, Ataturk’s vision of making Turkey a part of (European) civilisation left Turkey as a supplicant on the border of Europe which, however, persistently rejected it. So Turkey’s potential as a partner was limited.

4. The AKP government’s new vision is of a Turkey at the centre of its own region, whose interests are best served by good relations with its neighbours. This approach has transformed Turkey’s relations with the Arab world, Iran, the Western Balkans, and to some extent with Russia and the South Caucasus, not just politically but also economically and socially. Turkey’s trade and tourism from her neighbours have increased. On the Arab street, Turkey is regarded as an inspiration politically and culturally. Turkish soap operas are followed avidly throughout the Arab world.

5. These changes have dramatically increased Turkey’s importance to the UK, and they have taken place at a time of economic success, which has added heft to Turkey’s new regional profile. Examples of Turkish active regional engagement include:

The Western Balkans, where Turkish political engagement and commercial involvement have contributed to growth and stability.

Afghanistan, to which Turkey has contributed uniquely effective assistance, particularly in the fields of governance and reconstruction.

Libya, where the Turks have made an important contribution to the provision of humanitarian assistance and the search for a negotiated end to the Gadhafi regime.

6. Turkey’s new regional activism has led to differences with her western partners, for example:

In 2010 on Iran when her joint initiative with Brazil on nuclear recycling compromised agreement on an enhanced sanctions regime at the Security Council.

On Israel, a traditional ally with whom the Gaza Freedom Flotilla episode in 2010 led to a rupture of already damaged relations.

7. There has been US comment to the effect that Turkish foreign policy independence shows that the West is “losing” Turkey and that the fault for this lies with the EU, which has failed to accept Turkey as a member. It is true that Turkey will not become an EU member soon. But it does not follow from this that Turkey is turning its back on the West. On the contrary, there is an increasing gap between the democracy (even if imperfect) and prosperity of Turkey and the defective regimes and poverty of many of her neighbours. Such a country is bound increasingly to share fundamental interests with her stable and prosperous Western partners.

8. However, though Turkey will not be “lost”, her increased confidence, activism and regional status will mean that she will not automatically adopt the same policies as the EU majority in cases where that does not suit her. In this, she is no different from, for example, Germany or the UK. For British policy makers, the stakes are high. Turkish support for British objectives in areas of interest to Turkey is increasingly desirable; Turkish opposition to these can be a significant handicap.

(iii) Turkey and the AKP as models for other Muslim countries

9. Although Turks are overwhelmingly Muslim by creed, and the majority are devout and conservative, many Turks would be offended by the thought that there might be something distinctive in Turkish governance which appeals particularly to Muslim countries. At the same time, the stake of the devout and conservative majority in the country’s governance, since 2001 represented by the AKP, has steadily become more influential. The AKP both reflects their attitudes, and exploits these to ensure its political dominance.

10. It is a misconception, however, to regard the AKP government’s agenda as the “islamisation” of the country. The Turkish system should not, at least on these grounds, be an unattractive model for other Middle Eastern countries. Moreover, many of the victors in the “Arab spring”, attracted by the prosperity and modernity of a country which has recognisable cultural and religious similarities to their own, regard Turkey as an attractive example for their post-dictatorship political systems.

11. However, with some interruptions, Turkey has operated a multi-party democracy for more than 60 years. The major parties currently represented in parliament can trace their antecedents back to 1950. This cannot be instantly replicated in the MENA region where in any case the “Arab spring” encapsulates widely differing processes of change in different countries in the region. At the same time, contemporary Turkish governance reflects unique democratic development, which is still in process: revision of the constitution, together with the place of the Turkish military and the functioning of the judiciary, is a high political priority. It is therefore not helpful either to Turkey or to the UK to depict Turkish governance as a model in the context of the “Arab spring”.

12. Like the UK, Turkey’s “Arab spring” concern has been political modernisation and an orderly transition to successor governments. However, she has been hampered by her identification with the discredited regimes with which the AKP government had developed relations; and, in the case of Libya, by her aversion to the use of Turkish force in neighbouring Muslim states, thereby avoiding identification with western military interventionism. While this strengthened her effectiveness in Afghanistan, it attracted strong hostility from the Libyan rebels. At the same time, developments in Syria have demonstrated the limits of Turkish influence on behalf of orderly modernisation when faced with an embattled dictator impervious even to the strongest, but non-military, pressure from an important neighbour.

13. However, Turkey is not alone in having to re-calibrate her relations with Arab states as these undergo regime change. In the longer term, the fact that Turkey’s developed relationships with the Arab world are based on economic, commercial and societal factors as well as on politics will sustain the influence of Turkey in the region and ensure that Turkey remains an attractive comparator for aspiring Arab citizens. So Turkey’s importance as a partner for the UK in the region will not change.

14. A bigger challenge for Turkey than the Arab spring may be to resist being drawn into the dangerous competitive trend for major regional powers, such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, to assume the role of patrons of Arab Sunni or Shiite states, with the consequential risk of destabilisation and confrontation in the region.

(iv) Trends in the quality of democracy, the rule of law and human rights in Turkey

15. Turkish democracy is long-established and vibrant, but defective. The defects are due in part to a discredited constitution, and in part to bad governmental practice. The present repressive constitution, introduced after the 1980 coup, legitimises curbs on freedom of speech, abuses of human rights, as well as non-recognition of the rights of the Kurds, or of ethnic and religious minorities. Prime Minister Erdogan is committed to the introduction of a new constitution; a draft is expected by the beginning of October. Previous attempts at constitutional reform have been limited in scope, and have failed to bridge the serious divisions in Turkish politics and society. The new constitution must among other things acknowledge Turkey’s ethnic, linguistic and cultural diversity while preserving the unity of the Turkish state.

16. As regards government practice, there are concerns about the AKP government’s intolerance of opposition and criticism, and its focus on narrow political advantage. Opponents point to widespread use of wiretaps by state agencies, the government’s self-interested handling of scandals involving the Armed Forces, the detention of journalists critical of the government, and the granting of government contracts to AKP sympathisers. The recent crisis which led to the resignation of the Turkish Armed Forces’ commanders was certainly a defeat for the military, which traditionally “oversaw” Turkish politics. The question remains, however, whether this represented a positive development in Turkish governance, or instead a further accretion of authority by a government impatient with restraints on its exercise of power.

17. Turkey’s modernisation owes much to the changes the AKP government has made, for example by liberalising the economy, introducing social security and health care reform, and bringing the once remote state closer to the concerns of the people. Besides, many of the criticisms levelled at it are of failings inherited from previous governments, rather than of practices it has itself introduced. It is, however, very important that the government uses the opportunity which the new prosperity provides to improve the quality of democracy. Prime Minister Erdogan has said that the new constitution will be based on democratic and pluralistic principles that will bring Turkey closer to EU standards. This, together with a government which puts these principles into practice is an important interest for the United Kingdom.

(v) UK support Turkey for membership of the EU

18. The reasons why the UK has supported Turkish accession are, in brief:

The proven positive impact of the Accession process on the institutions, stability and prosperity of candidate and new member states.

The contribution which Turkey would make to the strength of the Union and in particular her capacity to project security and stability beyond the south eastern perimeter of Europe.

19. On the other hand, for the EU to abandon this process would mean:

resiling from formal commitments to Turkey as a candidate country, thereby damaging the Union’s reputation not just in Turkey but more widely;

signalling to the Muslim world that the Union was not willing to have a member the majority of whose people are Muslim, with negative impact on the effectiveness and credibility of EU policy throughout the Muslim world; and

putting at risk Turkey’s development as an important regional power whose policies and outlook is situated within the framework of European institutions and cooperation.

20. However, the expectation at the time negotiations with Turkey started that accession might take place in about 2014 is clearly unrealistic. Anti-Muslim sentiment has grown in Europe after the terrorist attacks in the US, Spain, the UK and elsewhere. The EU is heavily pre-occupied with recurring economic crises, and, not surprisingly, unable and unwilling to contemplate a major enlargement project. European opinion, in part at least for these reasons, has become anti-immigrant, defensive and inward-looking.

21. Turkish support for accession has also declined substantially. This is partly in reaction to opposition in key EU states such as France and Germany; partly because of a perception that, by contrast with EU members, Turkey has successfully weathered the economic recession and does not need EU membership to generate prosperity; and partly because of a view that membership requirements comprise an acquis communautaire which EU member states themselves have flouted in their attempts to deal with the economic crisis. There is, however, evidence that Turkish disillusion with the EU is soft, rather than deep-rooted: in more promising circumstances this attitude could be turned round and support for accession revived.

22. The thrust of this evidence is that Turkey’s increasing political and economic importance makes the political and security advantages to the Union of Turkish membership greater than ever: and that the counterpart risks inherent in Turkish non-membership are similarly great. It follows from this that the UK needs a strategy which on the one hand recognises that Turkish membership is a long term project, but which on the other hand sustains a positive relationship with Turkey on the basis of which movement towards accession can eventually be developed.

23. Against the unpromising background of hostility to Turkish membership among leading EU member states, the UK needs to identify means of managing the relationship with Turkey which are less vulnerable to obstruction by its partners. Possibilities include:

Cyprus—Mutual absence of trust between Ankara and Nicosia is the single biggest obstacle to reunification of the island, and it seems unlikely that the EU will be able to broker a breakthrough, given the unwillingness of other member states to confront Cypriot intransigence. In these circumstances, the UK could usefully support the International Crisis Group’s proposal that Turkey and Greek and Turkish Cypriots should take confidence-building steps unilaterally rather than as a complex negotiated package vulnerable to Cypriot opposition. This would build trust, satisfy key demands, open communication without prejudging the outcome of UN talks, and support a comprehensive settlement.

The Aegean dispute—The continuing deadlock is costly for both countries. Greece, in financial crisis, needs to reduce a disproportionate military budget. Turkey’s new government needs to ensure its neighbour’s stability and assert itself as a responsible regional player. The International Crisis Group has therefore suggested that now would be a good time to try to settle bilateral disagreements between Greece and Turkey over the Aegean.

Energy—See last paragraph of section on energy security below.

Visas—British visa policy is the issue which impacts most negatively on the UK’s bilateral relations with Turkey, and which has broader and more serious implications than is sometimes recognised. The process is complex and time-consuming; the requirement to divulge personal financial and other details when applying for a visa is regarded by many Turks as humiliating; applications are rejected for no apparently valid reason.

Many Turks, for example business people and academics who would otherwise come to the UK, decide not to submit themselves to this process. This is regrettable and ironic given Prime Ministers Cameron and Erdogan’s recent commitment to double trade between two countries within the next five years, and to forge stronger educational and cultural links.

British policy contrasts with the remarkable impact on Turkey’s bilateral relations with her neighbours of the imaginative decision to abolish visas altogether. The effect has been to reinforce Turkey’s position as a commercial, cultural and political regional hub.

Abolishing visas for Turkish citizens completely may be unrealistic. However, at present UKBA policy is a major irritant in the bilateral relationship and is inconsistent with our interests with Turkey. There is a strong political, commercial and educational case for liberalisation. We urgently need a fair, transparent and simplified process which would enable bona fide intending visitors to come to the UK and develop links with the UK, rather than turn them elsewhere. The Foreign Affairs Committee could recommend the establishment of an ad hoc committee to review and propose improvements to the present system. Umbrella bodies such as, on the academic side, the British and Turkish Academies, and, for trade and investment, the Turco British Business Council and the Turco British Chamber of Commerce and Industry, could usefully play a role.

(vi) The importance of Turkey to UK and EU energy security

24. The Bosphorus and continental Turkey are obvious transportation routes for oil and gas from Russia, the Caspian etc. to the major energy consumers in Europe. Turkey recognises the EU’s interest in reducing its dependency on Russian gas and in alternative sources of energy as well as in multiple transportation routes, and has made it an important policy objective to secure recognition as a reliable and secure energy hub essential to the EU’s energy security, and to decreasing reliance on Russia.

25. However, this role is potentially compromised by Turkey’s own dependency on Russia, and to a lesser extent Iran, to meet her energy needs. Her relationship with both countries is complex. The same is true of Azerbaijan, whose energy resources are important to Turkey and the West, but are also one of the cards it holds in the frozen Armenia/Azerbaijan/Turkey relationship.

26. The difficulties confronting the Europeans over energy security are vividly illustrated by the repeated delays in implementation of the Nabucco project, to which Turkey is a partner. These delays are the consequence of competing political interests and pressures, of uncertain calculations on economic viability, and of the promotion of rival alternative pipeline schemes.

27. Hardly surprisingly, the block imposed by Cyprus on discussion of the Energy chapter of the acquis in the Accession negotiations initially resulted in Turkish refusal to ratify the Inter-governmental Agreement on Nabucco or to sign the Energy Community Treaty. However, by 2009 Turkey had signed up to both of these.

28. Overall, therefore, the relationship between Turkey and the UK and the EU on energy issues is important, but it is also part of a complex broader political and economic framework. Clearly, closer cooperation with Turkey on energy could open the way for progress on other, currently stalled, issues in the accession negotiations. Equally, progress towards Turkish membership of the EU would affect the weight which Turkey could be expected to give to EU interests in determining her own energy policies. A Turkey which played a committed and positive role in achieving Europe’s objective of energy security would be an important asset to the Union.

29 August 2011

Prepared 2nd April 2012