Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum from Dr William Hale, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London

  1.  Turkey is important in Britain's external relations mainly because of its size and its geo-strategic position at the cross-roads between south-east Europe, the Black Sea, Transcaucasia and the Middle East. Turkish agreement, and if possible active co-operation, is a significant element for western policy in all these regions. Through its membership of NATO, Turkey is the only Muslim country in a formal military alliance with Britain and the other western powers. Although its democratic credentials are far from perfect, it is also a rare example of a Muslim nation which has made a determined and sustained attempt to establish and maintain a secular democracy. Apart from its geographical position and the availability of vital bases and listening posts on its soil, it is a significant military asset to NATO, as it has the second largest army in the alliance and its forces are now relatively well equipped with modern weapons. It is a co-guarantor, with Britain and Greece, of the Cyprus settlement of 1960. Like Britain, it participates in peace-keeping operations in Bosnia and Kosovo, and can be expected to do so in Afghanistan. Its economy has been chronically badly managed by successive governments, and went through a severe crisis in 2001, but its GDP is still around $200 billion at current exchange rates, with a population of around 67 million. Its imports from Britain in 2000 (the last year for which full data are available) were worth $2.7 billion (£1.8 billion), and its exports to Britain $2.0 billion (£1.3 billion).

  2.  Since Turkey is a member of NATO and the Council of Europe, and is ranked as a candidate for eventual accession to the EU, it is hard to distinguish Britain's bilateral relations with Turkey from these multilateral relationships, which cover most of the important points at issue between the two countries. In effect, Britain has to conduct its relationship with Turkey in co-ordination with these organisations. In spite of some points of friction, Turkey and Britain are fairly close on most major issues of international policy. Britain has generally supported Turkey's bid to become a full member of the EU eventually, provided it meets the Copenhagen criteria. The two countries are generally Atlanticist on defence and security questions, since both have a close and generally co-operative relationship with the US.

  3.  Although the events of 11 September and their aftermath have not necessarily enhanced Turkey's geo-strategic importance, they have certainly increased international recognition of it. Turkey has given full political support to the campaign against terrorism. It has given logistical support to the intervention in Afghanistan by allowing use of its airspace and airbases, besides providing intelligence. It would have been prepared to send troops to Afghanistan in support of "Operation Enduring Freedom", had this been necessary, and is now expected to contribute to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). It has been proposed that Turkey should take over command of ISAF from Britain after three months, and the British government does not appear to oppose this.

  4.  For Turkey, the most worrying aspect of the current situation is that the US may extend the campaign against terrorism to include military operations against Iraq. Turkey has no friendship for Saddam Hussein but, like many other countries, fears that any dismemberment of Iraq would upset the balance of power in the area. It is also worried that this could result in the establishment of an independent Kurdish state in Iraq, with potentially serious implications for it own internal Kurdish problem. Turkish reactions are not quite certain, however. As an example, the Turkish Ambassador in Washington has suggested that "if credible evidence is given that Iraq was behind the terrorist attacks on the United States then Turkey would not ignore the matter, it would review its standards vis-a-vis Iraq". Currently, it is unclear what action (if any) the US intends to take against Iraq. However it is important that Britain, like Turkey, should stress to Washington that a clear link with the attacks of 11 September should be proven, and that an alternative and nationally acceptable regime must be on hand to prevent chaos in Iraq if Saddam is toppled.

  5.  Apart from its security relationship with the US, relations with the EU have generally been the most important item on Turkey's foreign policy agenda in recent years. Turkey signed an Association Agreement with the then EEC in 1963. In accordance with this agreement, Turkey entered into a customs union with the EU in 1996. In December 1999, the European Council meeting in Helsinki decided that Turkey would be included as a candidate for possible eventual EU membership, on the same terms as the other candidate countries. However, before accession negotiations could begin, Turkey would need to meet the political part of the Copenhagen criteria. These specify that "membership requires that the candidate country has achieved stability of institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights and respect for and protection of minorities". Turkey was required to settle its bilateral disputes with Greece, mainly over offshore mineral rights and territorial waters in the Aegean, if necessary by resort to arbitration by the International Court in The Hague. The Helsinki conclusions also included important provisions regarding Cyprus, which are returned to below (para 11).

  6.  All the parties currently represented in the Turkish parliament support Turkey's eventual accession to the EU as a general principle, although the pro-Islamist Prosperity Party (SP) is probably less enthusiastic than its rivals. Similarly, public opinion polls suggest that a large majority of Turks support the idea of eventual accession. For example, a poll carried by the Piar-Gallup polling organisation in August 2000 found that 69 per cent of respondents favoured the idea, with only 10 per cent opposed (mainly for religious reasons) and the remaining 21 per cent classed as "don't knows". Among the political parties, the Nationalist Action Party (MHP), which is the second partner in the present coalition government, supports accession in principle, but in practice it is reluctant to enact some of the political reforms which would be necessary to achieve this (see below, para 9).

  7.  In November 2000 the EU Commission issued an Accession Partnership Document for Turkey outlining, among other things, the political reforms which Turkey is required to take before accession negotiations can start. These included, in particular, the strengthening of legal guarantees for the freedom of communication, association and assembly, and the legalisation of broadcasting in Kurdish. Kurdish language instruction "in the field of education" would also be required as a medium-term measure. The government would be obliged to prevent the regular use of torture by the police, to improve prison conditions, to abolish capital punishment, and sign and ratify Protocol 6 of the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR) to this effect. As a further medium-term reform, the EU required constitutional and legal changes to reduce the independent political role of the military—in particular, by bringing the powers and functions of the military-dominated National Security Council into line with the practice of EU member-states.

  8.  In the autumn of 2001 the Turkish parliament began the job of implementing these reforms by legislating a package of 34 amendments to the constitution, which were promulgated by the President on 17 October. The most important of these, affecting freedom of communication, association, and peaceful assembly and demonstrations, bring the constitution into alignment with Articles 10 and 11 of the ECHR—in fact, at several points, the new wording follows that of the Convention. These amendments are a significant step towards bringing Turkey into conformity with democratic norms. Parliament now needs to give effect to these changes, by altering a number of existing statutes—notably Articles 159 and 312 and other Articles of the Turkish Penal Code, and Article 8 of the "Law for the Struggle against Terrorism" of 1991. The existing Press Law and the Law on Criminal Court Procedures will also require amendment. By altering Article 118 of the constitution, parliament changed the composition of the National Security Council so as to provide for a majority of civilian members, stipulating that its decisions would purely "advisory" for the government, although it will probably be some time before the armed forces' political position is changed in practice.

  9.  The government has promised legislative reforms to give effect to the constitutional changes. Two serious sticking points are likely to remain, however. First, an alteration to Article 38 of the constitution has abolished capital punishment "except for cases in time of war, the imminent threat of war and terrorist crimes". Protocol 6 of the ECHR allows the first two exceptions but not the third. Second, regarding Kurdish cultural rights, references to "any language prohibited by law" have been deleted from the constitution, but this does not by itself allow broadcasting in Kurdish, which is still forbidden by the existing Broadcasting Law. Permission for Kurdish-language education, if granted, would require further changes to other legislation. These points are important primarily because the MHP wishes to retain parliament's right to order the execution of the PKK leader, Abdullah Öcalan, who is currently in prison under sentence of death. On the language issue, the MHP has resisted the idea of allowing Kurdish-language broadcasting or education. The two other ruling parties, Búlent Ecevit's Democratic Left Party and the Motherland Party led by Mesut Yilmaz, both favour complete abolition of the death penalty, but a re-alteration of Article 38 to bring it into line with Protocol 6 will be hard to achieve since it will require a two-thirds majority in parliament. Similarly, to alter the Broadcasting Law the government will probably have to arrange for support from the opposition parties.

  10.  The Presidency Conclusions of the European Council meeting in Laeken of December 2001 accepted that the recent constitutional reforms have "brought forward the prospect of the opening of accession negotiations with Turkey". The Turkish coalition leaders have recently indicated that they hope that a date can be set for the start of accession negotiations between Turkey and the EU by the end of this year. This may be too optimistic, but the EU currently aims to conclude negotiations with the "first wave" of candidates by the end of 2002, and to achieve their accession in 2004. Assuming that Turkey has conformed to the Copenhagen political criteria, that negotiations over Cyprus are successful, and that bilateral disputes with Greece have been resolved, it may not be possible for the EU to put off accession talks with Turkey for long after that. These negotiations will almost certainly last some time, so that accession—assuming it happens—will probably be some way down the road.

  11.  The dispute between Turkey and the EU over the proposed European rapid reaction force now seems to have been resolved, although the formula negotiated between Britain and Turkey has encountered Greek objections, with as yet uncertain results. This leaves Cyprus as the major stumbling block against progress towards accession. In the Helsinki conclusions and the Accession Partnership Document, Turkey was required to "support strongly" the efforts of the UN Secretary-General to bring about a settlement of the problem. However, the Helsinki conclusions also included the following passage: "The European Council underlines that a political settlement will facilitate the accession of Cyprus to the European Union. If no settlement has been reached by the completion of accession negotiations, the Council's decision on accession will be made without the above being a precondition. In this the Council will take account of all relevant factors". Subsequently, EU spokesmen have confirmed that Cyprus could be admitted to the EU even if there is no prior settlement between the Greek and Turkish Cypriots, and the British government appears to have adhered firmly to this line.

  12.  The Helsinki statement seems ambiguous, besides creating a host of problems, since it is hard to see how the question of whether or not an internal settlement has been achieved can be anything other than a "relevant factor". If it is not (as the preceding sentence implies) then it is quite unclear what the other "relevant factors" might be. Moreover, if the present Republic of Cyprus were admitted to the EU in advance of an internal settlement, then it is difficult to envisage how it could carry out its full obligations under the acquis regarding freedom of movement and establishment without renouncing sovereignty over the northern part of the island, which it is most unlikely to do. It is said that some formula might be worked out to avoid this, but without explanations as to how this could be done. Turkey and the Turkish Cypriots also argue, with some justification, that although the EU says it wants a settlement of the problem, by telling the Greek Cypriots that the Republic of Cyprus can be admitted to the EU anyway, even if it does not settle its differences with the Turks first, it provides them with no incentive to do so.

  13.  The Turkish Foreign Minister, Ismail Cem, recently stated that Turkey would take an "extremely costly" decision if the EU admitted Cyprus to the Union in advance of an internal settlement. Prime Minister Búlent Ecevit elaborated this by saying that if this happened Turkey might either annex the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) or establish a "special relationship" with it, making it an autonomous part of Turkey. However, Turkey might not do this if it also thought that there was a reasonably good chance of gaining accession itself, since such a reaction would almost certainly scupper any chances of this. The improvements in the prospects for eventual Turkish accession probably explain why Mr Denktash has agreed to re-start direct negotiations with Mr Clerides, without insisting that the sovereignty of the TRNC must first be accepted. In supporting these efforts, it is important that Britain and the EU recognise that it takes two to tango, and that the Greek Cypriots—not just the Turks—must be given incentives to be flexible. For instance, it could be made clear to the Greek Cypriot government that its policies and attitudes in the inter-communal negotiations would be an important "relevant factor" in the EU's decision as to whether Cyprus can be admitted to the Union.

  14.  Given the importance of its relations with Greece, Turkey and Cyprus, Britain cannot afford to be anything other than neutral in the Cyprus dispute. Apart from this, it will almost certainly gain from further progress in Turkish-EU relations. In urging Turkey to meet the Copenhagen criteria, it should avoid giving the impression that this arises purely out of concerns over the position of the Kurds, since improvements in the human rights regime will benefit all Turkish citizens, regardless of ethnicity. Britain should be concerned with universal values, not just the interests of particular groups. It is also important that it should not just stand on the sidelines, criticising Turkey for its failures over human rights and other issues, but be actively involved in helping the authorities to implement the needed reforms.

Dr William Hale

January 2002

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