Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum from William Park, King's College, London


  1.  The aspiration to join the European Union specifically, and be accepted as European generally, is central to Turkish foreign policy and to the identity of the country's governing elite. Concretely, over 50 per cent of Turkish trade is with the EU, and this percentage has steadily grown. Much of the rest of the country's trade is with non-EU European states, in the Balkans and the Former Soviet Union. Turkey is already a member of almost all Europe's institutions and of NATO, and provides entrants to the Eurovision song contest and European (rather than Asian) football and other sporting competitions. Turkey's legal system is derived from European practice and tradition, and along with the political system is officially secular.

  2.  To some others in Europe, notably continental Christian Democrats, Turkey's European self-identity can appear questionable. Geographically, only the small area of Thrace is unambiguously located in Europe (but then, in which continent are Cyprus, or the numerous Greek islands just a few miles from the Turkish coastline, located?). Turkey's population is Muslim, it is economically much less developed than EU Europe, and aspects of its political culture and practice (such as human rights limitations and the political role of the military) and of its economic management (a bloated public sector and large scale corruption) are at odds with European expectations as defined by the EU.

  3.  On the other hand, Turkey is readily differentiated from other Islamic states. In contrast with neighbouring Iran, Iraq, Syria and Azerbaijan, for example, Turkey is economically developed, possesses a diverse and dynamic private sector, and enjoys high levels of political pluralism, freedom of speech, and democratisation. Indeed, in many ways Turkey feels uncomfortable in its neighbourhood, and its closest regional ally is Israel.

  4.  In short, there is some substance to Turkey's European self-identity, even if within Europe Turkey might be seen as more Balkan than anything else. In fact, Turkey's President Sezer has recently suggested that Turkey be bracketed with Romania and Bulgaria in terms of its EU application, and Turks frequently question whether their country's political and economic drawbacks are really greater than those of its Balkan neighbours, who unlike Turkey are deemed ready to enter into EU accession negotiations.


  5.  Overall, Turkish-EU relations are often tetchy. Although accepted as a EU accession candidate in December 1999 (and even then only after much diplomatic tension) Turkey is the only one of 13 such states with whom accession negotiations have not begun. For the EU, the obstacles are Turkey's handling of its Kurdish problem and the human rights shortcomings that are often associated with it, the domestic political role of the military, economic underdevelopment and mismanagement, and the Cyprus issue.

  6.  Domestically, Turkey has embarked on a far-reaching economic and political reform programme, inspired by a National Programme drawn up in response to the EU's accession requirements. The sheer energy with which this programme has been tackled is testimony to the depth of Turkey's EU aspirations. Some have argued, however, that a truer test will come not with the passing of new laws but with their full implementation.

  7.  In any case, some of the core issues look particularly hard nuts to crack. For example, Ankara sees the Kurdish issue primarily as one of terrorism, territorial integrity, and regional stability. In this perspective, the problem can only approach resolution with victory in the fight against terrorism, an end to external interference and "support" for Kurdish separatists both by European and neighbouring states, regional economic development, and internal migration that will enable Kurds to enter the mainstream of Turkish national life. Turkish nationalists and elements in the military are unconvinced that in the current situation an extension of "human rights" will help resolve the conflict, and point to the very nature of the PKK, regional factors, and examples such as the Basques and others, to support their argument.

  8.  The Turkish military is a highly esteemed institution amongst the population at large, and is respected and trusted far more than are civilian politicians and officials. Its involvement in domestic politics, even where this has taken the form of military coups, is often regarded as an essential corrective to the corrupt and irresponsible behaviour of civilian elites and the broader social instability that has on occasion seemed to derive from this. The historical track record lends some credence to this perspective. It will not be easy to prise domestic political influence away from the military. Although this might not accord with EU expectations and ideals, it is an open question whether an end to the military's domestic political role would necessarily lead to a Turkey that the EU would be happy with.


  9.  The Cyprus issue has served as a serious obstacle to more harmonious Turkish-EU relations, and to the acceptance of Turkey as a candidate for EU membership. The Greek-governed, internationally recognised part of Cyprus is a front-runner for EU accession, which the EU has insisted need not necessarily be held up by a failure to resolve the issue of the island's division. On the other hand, the Greek side is nervous that the EU might hesitate to incorporate a member part of whose territory is under occupation by the forces of another (applicant) state. They are also uneasy about Turkish hints that it might annex northern Cyprus should Nicosia's accession to the EU go ahead. Athens has indeed threatened to veto any enlargement should the Cypriot case be refused. For its part, Ankara fully appreciates the consequences for its own EU prospects of a worsening of the Cypriot situation. Furthermore, Turkish Cypriots are unhappy with the economic consequences of their isolation from the rest of the island and of the associated international embargo. They would also like to reap the benefits of EU membership. These pressures have led to a recent resumption of inter-communal talks, under UN auspices, after a four-year break.

  10.  The outcome of these talks is unclear, but the Cyprus story as a whole has served to intensify still further Ankara's perception that it is misunderstood and excluded by Europe. From the Turkish perspective, Greek atrocities against the Turkish minority on the island, and the Athens junta's attempts to engineer enosis with the Greek mainland, triggered Turkey's treaty rights as a guarantor state to mount the 1974 operation. Ankara also notes that the 1960 constitution of independent Cyprus forbade the island from joining any international organisation from which either Greece or Turkey is excluded. Turks remain mistrustful of Greek attitudes towards the island's Turkish minority, and suspicious of the relationship between Nicosia and Athens. They generally fail to understand why Europeans so frequently fail to share or sympathise with this perspective.


  11.  More recently, the European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP) issue has again served to bedevil Turkish-EU relations, and intensify Turkey's feelings of exclusion. Turkey's objection has been to the EU's attempt to construct a "European pillar" based on EU rather than NATO membership. By its very nature, ESDP—declared "operational" at the EU's Laeken summit in December 2001—discriminates between EU members and non-members. Turkey, as a long-standing and active European NATO member with no immediate prospects of joining the EU, resents this. Its exclusion from the ESDP led Ankara to threaten to veto the access of any future EU force to NATO assets. This would either severely limit the scope for EU operations, or force the EU to expensively duplicate assets already available to NATO. This would in turn add to the prospects for a strategic decoupling of Europe from North America. It is thus hardly surprising that Ankara's apparent readiness to disrupt both NATO and ESDP caused considerable anguish.

  12.  In addition to its preference that the European pillar be constructed under NATO's wing, Turkey has also been unhappy that Greece, and perhaps Cyprus in the near future, would as EU members be in a position to obstruct the participation of non-member Turkey in a EU-led operation. Furthermore, although non-EU states (and non-NATO states such as Russia) will have the right to contribute to EU-led operations and, should they decide to so contribute, would enjoy the same rights as EU members in the day-to-day conduct of operations, a central feature of ESDP has been the insistence on the autonomy of EU decision-making. In other words, it was agreed that non-members might participate in EU-led operations only at the invitation of the EU, and in operations the very existence and objectives of which would already have been determined by the EU Council.

  13.  Ankara feels that this development reflects scant recognition of Turkey's Cold War contribution to European security or its current security significance and capacity. Given that 13 of the 16 potential crisis scenarios identified by NATO are in Turkey's geographic vicinity—the Balkans, the Caucasus, the Middle East etc—Ankara has thus feared the possibility of EU military activities being conducted in areas deemed vital to Turkey's national security but from which Turkey could be excluded. Ankara has frequently drawn attention to the possibility that so-called "non-Article 5" (Petersberg-type) missions could escalate into full-blown international crises. NATO's Article 5, which can be interpreted as obliging NATO members to come to each other's aid, would commit Turkey and other non-EU NATO members to become involved in situations—including situations in which Turkey feels it has a major stake—from which the EU had earlier excluded it. Perhaps more concretely, Ankara also feared that the EU might be pressured to engage against Turkish interests in Cyprus or in the Aegean. Greek-Turkish conflicts could be transformed into EU-Turkish conflicts.


  14.  Keen that ESDP should not pose a threat to NATO's cohesion, the British took it upon themselves to broker a UK-US-Turkey meeting in Istanbul on May 27 2001. This arduous meeting was followed up by comparably tough negotiations in Ankara on October 24, London on 7 November, and Ankara again on 27 November. Washington's presence at discussions focusing on an aspect of EU-Turkey relations is worthy of note. Although sharing much of Ankara's discomfort with ESDP, Washington has essentially been neutral in the EU-Turkey impasse. The US is keen to encourage the EU to take on more of the overall security burden, and has partly been persuaded (not least by London) that the ESDP might encourage this. It has also been fearful that continuing Turkish obstructionism might offer France and other EU states the opportunity to intensify their quest for greater independence from the US. However, along with Ankara's other friends, Washington has become progressively more irritated with what it regarded as Ankara's uncompromising and confrontational approach to the issue. Ankara's disappointment with the US position also became more explicit as time passed. Similarly worthy of note is the fact that the British never enjoyed a formal, cast-iron EU mandate to negotiate (or, to put it more accurately, to renegotiate agreements already painstakingly arrived at and finally agreed at the Nice summit of December 2000) on behalf of the EU as a whole. During the negotiations, Ankara explicitly doubted London's authority in this regard, and in particular questioned the readiness of Athens and perhaps Paris to sign off any agreement that emerged from the talks. It was evident, however, that informally the EU did support London's efforts.

  15.  These meetings helped tease out the precise details of Ankara's demands. Central to them was the right to participate at all stages, including the initial decision-making, of any EU-led operation relying on NATO assets. As Foreign Minister Ismael Cem expressed it, it should be NATO as the donor of assets rather than the EU as recipient that sets the terms of the transaction. Ankara also sought the right to participate in any EU-led operation not requiring recourse to NATO assets but which Ankara deemed as affecting its vital national interests—notably, operations in Turkey's geographic vicinity. Ankara additionally sought a secure pledge that the EU would not involve itself in disputes between NATO allies—that is, between Greece and Turkey.

  16.  Clearly, Ankara's demands struck at the very autonomy of decision-making that the EU is so insistent on, and would substantially erode the distinction between EU members and non-members. ESDP does discriminate between members and non-members, and British proposals sought to preserve that distinction whilst responding to some of Ankara's concerns. One British proposal was to appoint non-EU NATO "interlocutors" who would have access to the EU's Political and Security Committee and thus be in a position to "shape" but not directly make initial decisions on any EU-led mission. Throughout much of 2001, Ankara did not seem prepared to content itself with this "decision-shaping" role. A second idea was to upgrade Turkey's role on the so-called "committee of contributors", which would be formed (from EU members plus other likely contributors) whenever a military mission was under active consideration. British proposals would guarantee Turkey's seat on such a committee where NATO assets were likely to be called upon, and deem Ankara's presence "of particular benefit" where Turkey deemed its vital interests were at stake. Ankara argued for a greater and more or less standing role for such committees than the EU had hitherto been prepared to contemplate, on pre- as well as post-planning for any EU-led force.

  17.  Given the atmosphere that had accompanied the talks, it came as some surprise when, within days of the 27 November meeting, following a high-level gathering in Ankara on 2 December attended by the Chief of the Turkish General Staff as well as the heads of the coalition parties and the relevant ministers, Ankara announced that it was now satisfied with what was on offer and that the ESDP now had its blessing, even where it might wish to call upon NATO assets. The Turkish authorities offered little in the way of explanation of what had enabled them to alter their stance, such that some parliamentary deputies have called for an open debate and there have been allegations that Ankara has climbed down on its demands. Details have indeed been sketchy, but in any case it seems that Turkey is now reassured that the EU would not involve itself in disputes between NATO allies, and that the distinction between EU members and non-members with respect to decision-making has been blurred sufficiently to allow a satisfactory degree of Turkish involvement in any decision-making leading up to the conduct of an operation in geographical areas and issues deemed vital to Turkey's security interests, even where NATO assets are not called upon. By and large, it appears that the British proposals have been accepted.

  18.  Unfortunately but perhaps predictably, Athens is now resisting the logic of this agreement. Athens has argued that the enlarged consultation mechanisms offered to Turkey serve to undermine the autonomy on which the EU had been so insistent, and just as Ankara did, has queried the status for other EU members of an agreement negotiated by the British, Turks and Americans.


  19.  The UK's role in the ESDP saga demonstrates that the British share with Washington an appreciation both of Turkey's strategic significance and a commitment to NATO's pre-eminence as a security institution. Turkish foreign policy places great emphasis on the country's strategic value to the West, and Ankara is aware of and appreciates the UK's recognition of this. Turks are inclined to contrast it with the policy incoherence or lack of interest in strategic issues that it otherwise attributes to the EU and many of its members. Furthermore, Ankara can be said to envy the close strategic partnership London enjoys with Washington, and seeks to emulate it.

  20.  With respect to Turkey's EU aspirations too, the UK is generally regarded as one of the more sympathetic member states. Partly this is explained by the value London attaches to strategic issues, but it is also seen to stem from Britain's more general support for EU enlargement. Itself uneasy with the concept of a tightly-bound and deeply-integrated EU, the British are seen as more relaxed about membership criteria—certainly than, say, the French. The UK also lacks that strand of Christian Democracy to be found in parts of continental Europe and that sometimes regards Europe as in some way synonymous with "Christendom".

  21.  On the other hand, Germany is Turkey's most important economic partner and, with France, has probably had more cultural impact on Turkish development than has the UK. Turks are generally suspicious of west Europeans, partly as a consequence of a historical record that is seen to include profound hostility to the Ottoman Empire as an Islamic threat to Europe, economic exploitation of that empire as it progressively weakened, and a desire to dismember Anatolia in the wake of the Ottoman collapse. In all of this, the British are regarded as having been at the forefront. The British occupation of Istanbul, and Lloyd George's support for Greek expansion into Anatolia, are especially remembered. But it does not appear that these, sometimes bitter, memories are allowed too much influence over current Turkish policy.

  22.  From a Turkish perspective, the British have a mixed record where Cyprus is concerned. Generally supportive of the Turkish minority during British possession of the island, and protective of its interests in the run up to and negotiations for Cypriot independence, the UK is regarded as having been neglectful of its responsibilities since independence. In 1974 in particular, the British have been criticised by Turks for their unwillingness to fulfil their treaty obligations to preserve the independence of Cyprus from Greece and protect the security of the island's Turkish minority. However, the sentiment appears to be more one of regret and resignation than anger and bitterness. On the other hand, Turks can perhaps be forgiven for believing that the crisis over the island's fate might not have reached the state that it did if the British had shown a more pro-active sense of responsibility towards the terms of the essentially tripartite agreements that established Cyprus as an independent state.

  23.  The UK is a country respected by Turkey, generally because it is part of that western civilisation with which Turks aspire to merge, and specifically because of the strength of its institutions, its political stability, its civic culture, its historical achievements, and of course its language. However, in relation to the EU, and notwithstanding the role the British have played recently in squaring the circle of Turkey's participation in the ESDP, UK-Turkish relations are for the most part conducted multilaterally, via NATO, the EU or other institutions.

  William Park is the Senior Lecturer with the War Studies Group, King's College, London, and at the Defence Studies Department, Joint Services Command and Staff College (JSCSC), Watchfield

William Park

January 2002

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