Turkey in 2012 - Priorities and challenges

21 February 2012

“Turkey is always exciting. Sometimes I’d prefer it to be more boring!” said Selim Yenel, head of the Permanent Delegation of Turkey to the EU.

“Our economy is growing, along with our middle class. We now have the opportunity and the means to pursue an active involvement in world politics,” Yenel said.

“We’re not considered to be part of the European family like other countries, so we’re always being asked what we would bring to the EU club. The answer is foreign policy. Our neighbourhood is rough,” he said, referring to nearby Iraq and Syria.

The AKP’s ‘zero problems with neighbours’ policy was about pursuing friendly relations and softening tensions with every country in Turkey’s neighbourhood, the diplomat explained.

“It’s now seen as a flop and a failure, but I disagree. There’s no time limit for mending fences with Syria or Armenia, for example. We’ll continue our policy of dialogue and reducing tensions in our neighbourhood,” Yenel said.

He admitted that Turkey’s relations with the EU were “at a low point” and called for “a positive agenda for change”.

“We’re a self-confident nation and our economy is doing well. Our tactics [vis-à-vis relations with the EU] are to arrest the slide and not let things get any worse. But the euro zone is in crisis and the relevance of the EU in Turkey has declined,” Yenel explained.

“We’re less interested in joining the EU, and the EU is less interested in us,” he said.

Despite this, “we do have common interests on which to cooperate,” said the Turkish diplomat, citing the situation in Syria as an example.

He complained that Turkey’s EU membership process was holding back the establishment of closer ties with Europe.

“The EU process is holding us hostage. EU membership must still be the long-term goal, and it pushes us to reform. But the accession process has come to a halt,” he said.

“The European Commission’s ‘positive agenda’ initiative was designed to prevent a retreat. In the meantime, we’ll prepare ourselves for the eventuality of obstacles being lifted one day,” Yenel said.

“We need to be ready to seize our chance should the opportunity arise. Attitudes can change. Last year at the height of the Arab Spring, everybody was describing Turkey as a model,” he recalled.

“The affinities of the leadership and the public in today’s Turkey are changing, and the changes in its foreign policy are structural,” said Ian Lesser, executive director of the German Marshall Fund’s Transatlantic Center in Brussels.

“The West and the USA haven’t been abandoned, but people’s affinities and public opinion are much more diverse these days,” Lesser said.

Moreover, economic issues take precedence and Turkey has become a trading state, he declared.

Relations with the EU and Russia are still the most significant for Turkey, even as far as trade is concerned, but “its neighbourhood is where it’s trendy and happening, with countries like Syria and Iran,” Lesser claimed.

“It’s about convergence. Will Turkish foreign policy, the rule of law, or its environment and defence policies continue to converge with Europe’s?” he asked.

“I think they will, so this will bring Turkey closer to Europe, regardless of the formal membership negotiations. On the practical side, there are many areas in which cooperation is required – and which simply cannot wait,” Lesser said.

“Comparatively speaking, Turkey is now totally boring. No-one asks me about Turkish EU membership anymore,” said German MEP Alexander Graff Lambsdorff, vice-chair of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) group in the European Parliament.

“Since the EU opened accession negotiations with Turkey, relations have got progressively worse. But the accession process moves on, because it’s technical in nature. It’s led by the European Commission, and has a dynamic of its own,” Lambsdorff said.

“But we all know that the negotiations were launched without political consensus. The USA was wrong to push for the opening of membership negotiations,” he claimed.

“We need to break free from the prison of the accession negotiations and broaden our perspectives,” he declared.

“MEPs believe that domestic developments in Turkey are going in the wrong direction,” Lambsdorff said. On the other hand, he described the country as “a source of inspiration for what’s going on in North Africa”.