Memorandum from Dr Philip Robins, St Antony's
TURKISH FOREIGN RELATIONS WITH THE UK AND
1. Turkey is a sizable and relatively populous
country, with an economy in serious crisis, about which most opinion
formers in the UK and Western Europe are largely ignorant. Moreover,
there are perhaps only a handful of independent experts on Turkey
in the UK. Yet over the last decade and a half understanding Turkey
has been a key need for policymakers working on a broad range
of issues from European and Nato enlargement, through Balkans
stabilisation, to issues of conflict in the Middle East and Afghanistan.
2. Keeping UK relations on an even keel
with Turkey is difficult. In some areas, such as geostrategy,
Turkey is a like-minded and valuable state. In others, notably
human rights, Turkey is right out of step with the liberal norms
of the post-Cold War era. Distributed across the continuum of
bilateral relations are other important issues, such as: commercial
ties (good, but with greater potential); Cyprus (poor, but improving
slightly); and illegal drugs and immigration (greatly improved
of late). Aggregating these diverse experiences into stable and
consistent policy is therefore an enduring challenge.
3, Turkey is in many ways a natural ally
for the UK. Territorially (Cyprus possibly excepted), it is a
status quo power. It has an essentially Atlantic security outlook.
It has exerted a moderating influence in adjacent, regional conflicts,
notably in the Balkans and the Transcaucasus. It is a willing
participant in international peace-keeping (in addition to Afghanistan,
it sent major troop contingents to Bosnia, Somalia and Albania).
It is concerned at the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction,
especially in the Middle East.
4, It is, however, in some areas of its
domestic affairs that Turkey is perceived to be "not like
us". This is not for religious reasons, but because of a
combination of its poor record on human rights and political inclusion.
International NGOs will testify to Turkey's enduring problems
with respect to torture in police stations and deaths in custody.
While in themselves disturbing and abhorrent, they do not take
place as a result of deliberate policy. More tangible in this
regard are the raft of formal measures (eg the 10% electoral barrage)
that hinder the ability of the country's moderate Kurdish ethno-nationalists
and Islamists to play an effective political role within the parliamentary
5. One bi-product of the PKK-led Kurdish
insurgency, at its height between 1989 and 1996, and the Turkish
security response was growing political corruption and the emergence
of Turkey as a prime factor in the refining and smuggling of hard
drugs to Europe. Western law enforcement agencies complained about
the disappointing level of cooperation on the issue from Ankara.
This situation began to change five years ago. Over the last two
years Turkish cooperation has been very good. While drugs gangs
with connections to Turkey are still believed to dominate the
heroin trade in Britain, hard evidence exists to suggest that
such gangs are beginning to turn away from Turkish territory as
a refining centre and smuggling route.
6, There is good reason for believing that
Ankara's more collegiate approach over hard drugs, and greater
flexibility in other areas of policy, was in part spurred by the
Helsinki decision of the European Council to bestow candidate
status upon Turkey. This illustrates the extent to which a pro-Western
orientation remains at the heart of Turkey's foreign and security
strategy. The last 15 years have been a bruising period for Turkey.
The country has been overtaken in the queue for EU membership
by a swathe of countries that were until recently self-declared
enemies of the West. Turks have to understand that they have not
been singled out for negative treatment, but that their future
relations with the EU will largely be a function of objective
factors. On the other hand, EU leaders and opinion-formers need
to be sensitive to the Turkish elite's disappointed expectations
and act accordingly.
7. US relations with Turkey were mercurial
until the mid 1990s, when Washington discovered the importance
of presentation and symbolism in managing bilateral relations.
A stream of high level visits (not by any means exclusive to the
security sector) have taken place over the last five years. This
culminated in the extraordinarily successful visit of President
Clinton in 1999. Since then Turkey's residual anti-Americanism
of the 1960s and 1970s has faded. British and European politicians
could learn much from this American engagement.
8. Cyprus and Greece continue to be worrying
areas of Turkey's foreign relations. The atmospherics in Greek-Turkish
relations have improved considerably since the "earthquake
diplomacy" of 1999. Nevertheless, there has been a worrying
failure to date to use this cordial atmosphere to settle outstanding
substantive bilateral problems, especially relating to the Aegean.
9. Cyprus continues to be the touchiest
of Ankara's priorities. The security concerns expressed on behalf
of the Turkish population of Cyprus are real. It remains unclear
as to whether Turkey has a strategic reason for retaining a strong
military presence on the island. Turkish public opinion is sensitive
on the subject of the future of the island. The prestige invested
in Cyprus by the military, together with politicians like current
premier Bulent Ecevit, helps explain the disproportionate attention
the issue receives in Ankara.
10. Bilateral relations between Britain
and Turkey are generally good, especially now that the MED-TV
and Ilisu Dam issues are behind us. The UK played a useful role
in negotiating with Turkey on the issue of ESDP. Britain needs
to do more to cultivate that relationship, with an official visit
by Tony Blair being a good place to start. Other measures should
follow, such as greater funding for Turkish studies in the UK
and more money for research on Turkey and for joint projects with
Turkish institutions. Civil society also needs to play its part
if bilateral relations are to acquire greater ballast and hence
avoid the fluctuating fortunes of a long and uneven diplomatic
Dr Philip Robins is a University Lecturer in
the Department of Politics and International Relations at the
University of Oxford and a Fellow of St Antony's College. He is
also the Director of the University's Programme on Contemporary
Turkey. He joined Oxford University in 1995 following eight years
at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, at Chatham House,
where he was head and founder of the Middle East Programme. He
is the author of "Turkey and the Middle East"
(Pinter/RIIA, 1991). His "Suits and Uniforms: Turkish
Foreign Policy since the Cold War" will be published
by Hurst in the late spring.
Dr Philip Robins
21 January 2002