Turkey’s Entry to the EU: Clash of Cultures or Golden Opportunity? Speech delivered in the Reform Club, London, 12 September 2006


The text of the speech delivered by

Mr. Yaşar Yakış

Chairman of the EU Committee in the Turkish Parliament

Former Minister of Foreign Affairs

In the Reform Club

London, 104 Pall Mall, 12 September 2006


Distinguished guests, ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a great pleasure and honour for me to address such a distinguished audience.

I will try to remain within the outline suggested for my address by the Reform Club. The first sub-title proposed by the Club is “Benefits of EU membership to both EU and Turkey”

Benefits of EU membership to EU

a) Turkey believes that its membership to the EU will be symbol of harmonious co-existence of cultures, and enriching the spiritual fabric of the EU. As a key regional actor and ally located in close proximity to many existing and potential hotspots that are high on the European and international agenda, Turkey can help enhance stability and promote welfare in the Balkans, the Caucasus, Central Asia and the Middle East. In fact, out of 15 hot spots identified by NATO as potential threat to the alliance, 12 are located in areas adjacent to Turkey or in areas where Turkey has cultural or historical ties. These areas are the Middle East (including Palestine, Syria, Iraq and Iran), Caucasus, the Balkans and the Central Asia. I do not want to imply that the EU cannot carry out its goals in these areas without Turkey’s contribution. However, I may say without undue modesty that these goals could be achieved more easily, with less effort and resources and with much less acrimony, if it is done in cooperation with Turkey.

The importance attributed by the US to the role to be played by Turkey in the Iraqi crisis is a living evidence of this. It was an important development when the Turkish government submitted a motion to the parliament to authorize the American troops to cross Turkish territory in order to open a second front in the northern Iraq. It was also an important development when the Turkish parliament denied the authorisation. Two years after the occupation of Iraq, the US Defence Secretary Rumsfeld said that if Turkey had authorized the US troops to cross the Turkish territory, the insurgency would not have gained the present strength. This example demonstrates the importance of both the cooperation and the absence of cooperation with Turkey.

b) Moreover, once Turkey becomes a member of EU, it will be able to contribute much more to the Common Foreign and Security Policy.  With its experience and capabilities in the military field, Turkey will definitely increase the weight of the EU in the global arena.

With Turkey as a full member, the Union will no doubt have a stronger voice.  The prevention and settlement of conflicts that involve the western community of nations and other countries will be easier.  The world will be safer. Above all, it will be a serious blow and an outright response to radical terrorism shaking the world today

c) A  modern, secular and prosperous country like Turkey, with predominantly Muslim population, will be an asset for the EU and its admission to EU will be a reconfirmation of the universality of the European Culture. Otherwise Europe will be identifying itself on the confessional terms and will confine itself exclusively to the Christian countries. This will deepen the divide between Europe and the Islamic world as well as the entire non-Christian world.

Turkey contributes to the ongoing rapprochement between Europe and Asia and hence helps extend modern values in regions neighbouring Turkey

d) Turkey is sitting on a landmass, which is the natural route for the supply of gas and oil from the Middle East and the newly discovered reserves in the Caucasus and Central Asia.

e) There is at present more than 10 million Muslims living the EU countries. The membership to EU of a secular country with predominantly Muslim population like Turkey may contribute to a better understanding of secularity by the Muslim population of EU. This may contribute, in its turn, to marginalize Muslim extremism in the EU countries.

f) Furthermore, Turkey’s membership in the European Union will surely be a symbol of harmonious co-existence of cultures, and enriching the spiritual fabric of the European Union.

g)  The EU may use Turkey’s young and hard working population as an asset to minimize the negative effects of the aging population and depopulation in many EU countries.

h) Entrepreneurs of ethnic Turkish origin have already established more than 80 000 businesses in various EU countries, most of them being in Germany. They created hundreds of thousands jobs in these countries. Their contribution to the national economies of the countries where they are operating will be further strengthened and these economies will continue to benefit further from the creation of such new jobs.

i) Turkey is a dynamic and rapidly developing market of 73 million inhabitants and with unsaturated demand for the EU industries.

Turkey’s membership to the EU will no doubt enhance the Union’s global reach, be it strategic or economic, thus its influence.

Benefits of EU membership to Turkey

Turkey regards its membership to the EU as the most important modernisation project since the proclamation of the Republic in 1920s. On the other hand, Turkey regards the EU as the most concrete embodiment of universal values combined with a functioning democracy and liberal market economy. These are also values that Turkey is eager to embrace. One may ask the question whether Turkey could not achieve these goals without becoming a member of the EU. It may. However, EU has created rules and institutions to further develop these values, to monitor the implementation of the rules, to monitor the proper functioning of the market economy. These rules and institutions have gone successfully through several tests. Turkey should not be trying to re-invent the wheel, while such a concrete experience is available. In other words, Turkey believes that the most effective way to consolidate the reforms so far achieved and to make them irreversible would be to join a club where there mechanisms in place to monitor them.

We may add to this, the advantages of becoming part of a huge single market of the EU to be composed of about 600 million consumers. Here again, one may ask the question whether this cannot be achieved by establishing a customs union between Turkey and the EU. Actually there is already a customs union agreement between Turkey and the EU. It is in force now since more than 10 years. However, Turkey is not participating in the shaping of the customs union policy of the EU. It has to implement the decision adopted in a forum where it is not present. Turkey has signed this customs union agreement in 1995 with the EU with the hope that its full membership to the EU was imminent. Now that this process is prolonged, many observers in Turkey started to wonder whether the present status is sustainable indefinitely

What are the alternatives

      The alternatives in case Turkey does not join the EU may be examined under two sub-titles: Internally and externally.

      Internally, nationalistic feelings will grow stronger in Turkey in case Turkey is not admitted to the EU, with all negative consequences that this may entail. This will have negative consequences on Turkey’s relations with some of its neighbours. It may also have negative effects on foreign companies that will be operating in Turkey.

In a democratic society, when nationalistic feelings are strong, you will easily find political parties that would like to capitalize on these feelings and to use it to come to power. Once in power it will be only natural that the policy to be followed by such a political party will be inspired from nationalistic feelings.

      On the other hand, moderate Islam that prevails at present in Turkey may face the pressure coming from radical margins of the society. As I pointed out earlier, the moderate Islam of Turkey is an asset for the EU to bridge the fault line that exists between the West in general and the Islamic world. If this opportunity is wasted, it may be harder for the West in general or the EU in particular to fill this gap.

This was the possible effect in the domestic field. I now turn to what may happen externally. Turkey is a country with 73 million inhabitants. From the geo-strategical viewpoint, it is located in one of the most critical geographical location of the world. It neighbours many unstable regions such as the Balkans, the Caucasus, the Middle East and perhaps the most critical countries in the Middle East, such as Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Cyprus. Furthermore it controls the seaways that link the Black Sea basin countries including the Russian Federation to the warm seas. It constitutes the major land corridor between Asia and Europe and between the Middle East and the Balkans.

 It is not realistic to expect that such a country will remain in limbo in case it does not join the EU. What exactly Turkey could do in such circumstances will depend most probably on what its national interests will require at that time.

The EU has pointed out on several occasions that in case Turkey does not become full member of the EU, it has to remain anchored in the western structures. I know that this is a genuine wish of the EU. However, I would like to point out here, without a threatening tone that, it is only natural to presume that in case Turkey does not become member of the EU, it will be Turkey and not the EU to decide what Turkey should be doing.

Should Turkey align East or West or is it the Ideal Bridge?

This question is not asked by me. It was proposed as a sub-title of my presentation. The way this question is formulated gives the impression as if it were a mutually exclusive concept to align East or West and to serve as an ideal bridge. However I do not believe that these two concepts are mutually exclusive.

Turkey is part of almost all European institutions. It is a member of the Council of Europe since its establishment. It is full member of the OECD. It is one of the main pillars of the NATO. It is a negotiating country with the EU. With all these attributes, Turkey is eager to align the West. Becoming part of the West does not take away from Turkey its capacity to remain an ideal bridge. What make Turkey an ideal bridge are its geographical location and its predominantly Muslim population. These attributes will remain with Turkey when it joins the EU. Therefore I do not believe that being part of the West and serving as ideal bridge are not two mutually exclusive concepts. 

Turkey’s current relations with its neighbours – Reunification of Cyprus 

      Turkey’s neighbours are the following countries: Bulgaria, Greece, Cyprus, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia and across the Black Sea the Russian Federation and Romania. The state of our relations varies considerably from one neighbour to the other.

      With Bulgaria, the relations have reached a satisfactory level after the fall of the communist regime.

With Greece we have a set of problems that could be enumerated as follow: the demilitarised status of various Aegean islands, delineation of the continental shelf in the Aegean Sea, the width of the territorial waters around the Greek islands in the Aegean Sea, the ownership of various geographical formations and rock in the Aegean Sea, air space over the Greek islands in the Aegean Sea, the rights and freedoms of the ethnic Turkish minority in the north of Greece etc. Exploratory talks were initiated between the under-secretaries of the foreign ministries of both countries. These talks were meant to identify the problems. However progress is very slow for reasons difficult to explain.

      With Syria our bilateral relations are improving. Turkey believes that Syria should not be isolated from the international community.

      With Iraq the major problem is to preserve the territorial integrity of the country and not to make illegitimate attempt to alter the demographic composition of Kirkuk, since such a move may lead to claim rights over the natural resources of the Kirkuk region. Turkey is in favour of an equitable distribution of all natural resources of the country to the entire population of Iraq.

      With Iran we enjoy satisfactory bilateral relations. On the subject of the uranium enrichment plan of Iran, Turkey is in favour of a Middle East entirely free from nuclear weapons. With this approach in mind, Turkey uses it good relations with Iran to convince it to cooperate more closely with the international community.

      With Cyprus, Turkey believes that it has done everything possible to reach a solution to this decades old problem. Political leadership in Turkey took a risky and bold decision to encourage Turkish Cypriots to vote in favour of the Annan Plan. Secretary General of the United Nations prepared a plan for the solution of the Cyprus problem. This Plan was not supported by the public opinion in the mainland Turkey, as it was making too many concessions to the Greek Cypriot side. However, the political leadership in the mainland Turkey thought that in the then prevailing circumstances the only way out of the impasse was to make a step forward despite the objection of the public opinion. Turkish Cypriots voted in favour of the Annan Plan, but the Greek Cypriots who voted against the Plan were admitted to the EU while the Turkish Cypriots who voted in favour are left out. We are now waiting for the EU to reward the Turkish side for its support of the solution and punish the Greek Cypriots for their rejection of the solution.

      An equitable solution to the Cyprus problem will make an enormous impact on the stability of the eastern Mediterranean, on the Turkish Greek bilateral relations, on the problems of the Ethnic Turks in Greece and ethnic Greeks in Turkey and on the ESDP. This atmosphere of peace and stability may also spill over to the Middle East. I therefore believe that anyone who has means to contribute to its solution should be forthcoming and bring its contribution.

With Armenia, Turkey has difficulties because of its territorial claims from Turkey.  In the declaration of independence the eastern provinces of Turkey is referred to as Western Armenia. This is unacceptable for Turkey. Secondly, Armenia is working hard to get Turkey recognize the unfortunate events of 1915 as a genocide. The Turkish Prime Minister proposed to Armenia that it should be left to historians to find out what exactly happened in 1915. He proposed to establish a team of historians from both side, to open all archives and when the historians finish their work they should submit the results to the politicians of both countries for appropriate action. The Armenian side did not respond so far. I believe that the international community should put pressure on Armenia to respond to Turkey’s proposal.

Furthermore, Armenia occupies at present one fifth of the territory of Azerbaijan, in open violation of the international law. More than one million Azeris are internally displaced in their country. Turkey has very close ties with Azerbaijan. It will be difficult for any government in Turkey to normalize relations with Armenia if the foregoing obstacles are not eliminated.

The Kurdish Problem has to be distinguished from the acts of terror committed by a terrorist gang called PKK. Kurdish speaking population of Turkey is not deprived of any right to the extent that it is allowed in a unitary regime. Turkey is not a federal country. There are more than 30 ethnic groups in Turkey. If each of them uses its mother tongue in its official transactions, or if all languages are taught at schools, the country will not be governable any longer. However, all ethnic groups are allowed to use their languages in their private dealings. They are allowed to publish books and newspapers and to broadcast  in their mother tongue. They are allowed to learn and teach their language in the language courses.

Given this background, Kurdish problem is more a question of regional economic under-development than anything else. The present government in Turkey gave several incentives to investments to be made in the South Eastern Turkey inhabited predominantly by Kurdish speaking people.

      Religious freedom is enjoyed entirely in Turkey to the extent that it is not in contradiction with the secular principles of the Turkish Republic.

French intransigence to Turkey’s EU membership

       Some politicians in France are in fact opposed to Turkey’s EU membership and favour a privileged membership status for it. France is not the only country to do so. However, Turkey believes that this attitude is motivated by the domestic political considerations. Turkey does not want to get entangled in this type of attitudes. It perceives the accession to the EU as a long-term perspective. Since we are talking about an event that will materialize about a decade later, we do not know what type of a political landscape will prevail at that time. We do not know whether the politicians who express today misgivings about Turkey’s accession will still be in power at that time; whether they will maintain their present position at that time even if they are in power. What we have to do at this stage is to work genuinely for the successful conduct of the accession negotiations and leave other issues to the time when the negotiations are completed.

Cultural differences were regarded by Europe as an asset that enriches the cultural patrimony of the continent. If it is believed that the cultural diversity is an asset only when it is part of the Christian culture, this will be a very limited diversity.

Internal politics of Turkey – impact of divergence between moderate Islamic Government and secularist old guard backed by the army.

      I would like to correct one misperception before moving to the core issue. The present government in Turkey does not identify itself as a moderate Islamic government. It does not identify itself with Islam of any sort. The religion is not a point of reference in the party’s political agenda or program. The only connection between Islam and the present ruling party in Turkey is that a sizeable part of its grassroots supporters are moderate Muslims.

      The governing party is the produce of the secular regime in Turkey. All members of the parliament including the members of the governing party take oath before assuming their parliamentary mandate stating that they will remain faithful to the secular principles of the Republic.

      There has always been in Turkey sections of the society that are more pious or more secular than others. I do not see this any more important than the difference between the Labour and Conservative parties in the United Kingdom. I may even say that difference between the moderate Muslims and the secularists in Turkey is even closer that the difference between Labour and Conservatives.


                  Is Turkey’s accession to the EU a golden opportunity? I am not in favour of qualifying the opportunities as “golden” or otherwise, but I genuinely believe that Turkey’s accession to the EU is an asset and definitely not a liability.

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