INTERVIEW: Still westward bound

By bne IntelliNews November 18, 2011

David O'Byrne in Istanbul -

If there is one question that always comes to mind when looking into the arcane details surrounding Turkey's torturous EU accession process, it's "Why do they bother?".

If the statements of some of Europe's leading politicians are to be believed, Turkey either has no place in the EU (Sarkozy) or should be entitled to only a restricted form of membership (Merkel). But the good news for both Turkey and the EU is that the current Turkish government remains committed to a process first started back in 1959. "Even in the worst time in our history, when our empire was fracturing, we were known as 'the sick man of Europe', never 'the sick man of Asia'," jokes Turkish Minister for European Union Affairs and Chief Negotiator Egemen Bagis.

But Bagis has a serious point - why, he asks, should Turkey be any less European now, when it boasts the fastest growing economy in Europe and is the envy of a continent locked in fearful deadlock over the future of the ill-fated single currency.

It's a good question, but one which also begs the question of why further integrate the healthy Turkish economy with those of its ailing neighbours. "The EU has its problems, but it remains the most prosperous group of countries in the world," Bagis says.

He also stresses that Turkey's commitment is not purely economic. "For us, the EU is the grandest peace project in the history of mankind... The message [of Turkey's membership] is bigger than either Europe or Turkey," he says, pointing out that Turkey's commitment to secular democracy is already setting an example for the newly emerging democracies in north Africa and that Turkey's EU accession could offer a positive example to states the world over which feel marginalised by the West.

In addition to the rhetoric, Bagis also offers a hard-headed assessment of just how important Turkey stands to be to a union already dependent on imports for the bulk of its energy needs. "70% of the energy resources the EU needs are to the east, south or north of Turkey," he says, pointing out that Turkey has long been a member of the consortium developing the Nabucco pipeline project, which aims to break the growing stranglehold that Russia has over gas supplies to the EU by opening up a new transit route through Turkey.

It's ironic, therefore, that Turkey is unable to open the energy chapter of its EU accession process thanks to the opposition of Cyprus - an island isolated from European energy networks. That chapter is one of six that Bagis explains could be opened within a few months, were it not for political opposition from within the EU.

Island affairs

Much of that opposition stems from Turkey's refusal to normalise bilateral relations with Cyprus - a problem highlighted in the EU's recently published annual progress report on Turkey's accession progress. Turkey justifies its position on the grounds that the EU refuses to allow direct trade and transport links with the Turkish Republic of North Cyprus (TRNC), which occupies the northern third of the island and is recognised only by Turkey. The irony, explains Bagis, is that there is one EU state that does allow direct trade and transport links with the TRNC, and that's the Republic of Cyprus itself. "Greek Cypriots can travel back and forth and trade with the north, but they won't allow other EU states to do the same," he points out.

Negotiations on reuniting the two halves of the divided island are continuing under the shadow of the Turkish threat to freeze relations with the EU during the six months from next July that Cyprus will hold the rotating EU presidency, unless a settlement can be reached beforehand. "We are working hard to see that a settlement is reached and that we can open five more chapters during the Greek presidency," says Bagis.

"If I was a Greek Cypriot, I would be working hard to ensure that Turkey's EU membership goes ahead," he adds, explaining that Cyprus' proximity to Turkey makes good relations between the two not just a guarantee of peace and cooperation, but also given the health of the Turkish economy an economic imperative.

That export-driven economic success would appear to be Turkey's big advantage. But critics point out that increasingly Turkey's exports are targeted at the Middle East and question whether the country is headed in the right direction. "Around 50% of our trade is with Europe and 92% of our FDI comes from EU states," explains Bagis. "Just because we're reaching out for new markets doesn't mean we have abandoned our target of 52 years."

"Despite the current difficulties, we still believe the European Union has the right formula, and is the right place for Turkey."

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