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UNCORRECTED TRANSCRIPT OF ORAL EVIDENCE To be published as HC 1567-iii
HOUSE OF COMMONS
TAKEN BEFORE THE
FOREIGN AFFAIRS COMMITTEE
UK-TURKEY RELATIONS AND TURKEY’S REGIONAL ROLE
TUESDAY 15 NOVEMBER 2011
DR GÜLNUR AYBET, DR PHILIP ROBINS and DR MINA TOKSOZ
Evidence heard in Public
Questions 106 - 174
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Taken before the Foreign Affairs Committee
on Tuesday 15 November 2011
Richard Ottaway (Chair)
Mr Bob Ainsworth
Mr John Baron
Sir John Stanley
Mr Dave Watts
Examination of Witness
Witnesses: Dr Gülnur Aybet, Senior Lecturer in International Relations, University of Kent at Canterbury and visiting Professor, Izmir University of Economics, Turkey, gave evidence.
Q106 Chair: Good morning. May I welcome you to the Committee’s third evidence session in its inquiry into UK-Turkey relations and Turkey’s regional role? This session will allow the Committee to question in succession two leading academic specialists on Turkey and especially Turkish foreign policy-one with a focus on transatlantic issues and the other with a focus on the Middle East-before questioning a leading country economist on the economic issues relevant to our inquiry.
I am pleased to welcome Dr Gülnur Aybet, senior lecturer in international affairs at the university of Kent, at Canterbury, and visiting professor at Izmir university of economics, in Turkey. Thank you very much for coming along, Dr Aybet-it is much appreciated. Is there anything you want to say in an opening statement, or shall I go straight into questions?
Dr Aybet: Could I just make a brief opening statement? I thought it was important for me to explain why I think there is an increased, growing interest on the part of the UK in having a much more intensive relationship.
I was especially struck by the FCO written evidence, which spoke about the promotion of "joint ventures between Turkish and UK firms in third countries such as Iraq and the Central Asian republics" and the reinforcement of the UK commercial diplomacy team. I think the UK is engaging with Turkey much more intensely for two reasons: investment and stability in the region. If we look at this from a much wider angle, it has a lot to do with a gradual US disengagement from the region. The UK seems to be following a strategy of working together with emerging regional powers like Turkey. Strategically, I think Turkey is an ideal partner in that, not just because of its normative power in the Middle East, being an Islamic country with a secular democracy, but, strategically, because of its growth rates, its geostrategic position, its diplomatic role as a negotiator in its own right and its potential as an energy transit country. This adds to its value for the UK as a regional partner.
What the FCO written evidence did not do was to thrash out the details of how this should be done. It did not really say in detail how some of the impediments might be overcome, such as the blockage of NATO-EU strategic co-operation, Iran’s nuclear ambitions, what Turkey will do if Iran should go nuclear, the Cyprus blockage and so forth. When we are looking at the region around Turkey, which is changing like quicksand-by the minute-this is a piecemeal learning process, and we have to bear that in mind, not just for the UK and Turkey.
To close, I would just like to say that I think one of the valuable assets of the AK party’s foreign policy has been this flexibility to adapt to very rapid changes such as, for example, initially having outreach to the region by cultivating personal relationships with long-standing leaders and, as those leaders got toppled or lost legitimacy, to quickly start backing the opposition. We saw this with Egypt, Libya and now Syria, so I think this kind of flexibility is very important. If asked by the Committee, I will say some more about Iran with regard to that and about why Turkey has so far supported the status quo with that country.
Q107 Chair: Thank you, Dr Aybet. In your written submission to us, you said that Turkey’s foreign policy was really going down three roads: the first was the transatlantic security, EU, America line; the second was regional, based on ethnic and religious identity; and the third was regionally proactive, based on realpolitik. Which of these do they actually think is most important?
Dr Aybet: It depends on the timing, but for the time being, like I said, because the region is changing so rapidly, I would think the third one, at this particular time.
Q108 Chair: Yes. Having been there, I think I would agree with you. Looking at the bilateral relationship between the UK and Turkey, do you think we have seen any improvements in recent years?
Dr Aybet: Oh, yes. I think the Anglo-Turkish strategic partnership that was announced last year, and then these new initiatives-not just in investment, but also in wanting to work together with Turkey in terms of regional stability-are very important; as also is the UK’s long-standing role in supporting Turkey’s EU accession.
Q109 Chair: Is the visa regime between the UK and Turkey a problem or is this an irritant?
Dr Aybet: It is both-a problem and an irritant. One of the things that I mentioned in my written evidence was the inconsistency in the approaches of EU countries to Turkey. In fact, I said that the UK was one of the more consistent EU countries to have a relationship with Turkey that was positive. The visa regime is actually an inconsistency in the UK’s approach to Turkey, because the UK would like to have much more intensive regional co-operation with an EU accession country but then not to make any changes to the existing visa regime, which is a considerable irritant for the Turks.
Q110 Chair: What do we need to do to improve it? Do you think we have to simplify it, both ways?
Dr Aybet: Yes, I think so. I do not really know much about the detail of what needs to be done with regard to the visa regime. I could come back to you, if you wanted me to.
Q111 Ann Clwyd: Good morning, Dr Aybet. Do you think the UK Government are too relaxed about the extent to which Turkey can be a reliable foreign policy partner?
Dr Aybet: I do not think the UK is very relaxed with regard to Turkey in that respect, or to any other country. I think, in terms of foreign policy, countries have a very proactive engagement and they deal with each other on a changing basis. I do not think that the UK is being too relaxed, as you put it, by engaging Turkey much more proactively in the region.
On whether Turkey can be reliable, obviously there are a number of strategic common interests. Turkey would like to live in a much more stable neighbourhood, because she-as opposed to the UK-actually lives there. Turkey would like to be a major transit hub for energy, and the UK is very interested in the southern corridor. So there are a number of strategic issues in which Turkey and the UK have co-interests and there are also a number of normative common points, such as wanting to promote much more stable democracies in the Middle East.
But then we have to see that we also have differences. For example, the UK at the moment is quite concerned about Turkish-Israeli relations. I do not know when we will hit a stumbling block with regard to relations with Iran, as we have considerable differences there as well. We have considerable differences over Cyprus, although much less than before. But the UK has not really been very active in using its influence there to eradicate any blockages or soothe relations.
So there are things that we have in common and things that we disagree on, but that is normal with any relationship with any country.
Q112 Ann Clwyd: Should we be more active on the Cyprus front?
Dr Aybet: It might be useful, given the-"leverage" is the wrong word- but the kind of weight that the UK has in that matter, if there were to be some kind of persuasion for Cyprus to unblock at least one chapter. If that chapter happened to be energy, in which both Turkey and the UK have a common interest, a unilateral gesture might actually be a way of nudging things forward. I am not saying that Turkey will immediately start implementing the protocol and open its ports to Cyprus, but it would be a better place than the one we are in now, where everything is absolutely frozen, and I think that the UK could actually do something in that respect.
Q113 Ann Clwyd: To what extent do you think the UK Government can expect Turkish foreign policy to remain what it is, in the medium term at least?
Dr Aybet: It depends what you mean by the medium term. Things are changing so rapidly. Sometimes you think of the medium term as five to six years or a decade. At the moment, it is safe to say-as I said in answer to the previous question-that Turkey is much more concerned in regional strategic management and, in that respect, with the UK it has a lot in common for the foreseeable future. But one of the biggest problems down the road is if we start getting different threat perceptions on the part of Turkey and its NATO allies, not just the UK. One of the catalysts that could push that sooner than later-we could be talking medium or long term-could be the missile defence system, whether Iran will go nuclear, and what Russia is likely to do.
As I explained in my written evidence, although I think that Turkey is predominantly following the third sphere of realpolitik right now, its relations in the other two spheres: the transatlantic relationship and its regional normative ties are also important. There are constant clashes, as you would expect, among these three spheres, and as those clashes intensify we might see a Turkey that has a widening gap of threat perceptions from others vis-à-vis the region.
Q114 Ann Clwyd: You also said in your written evidence that "There is more rhetoric than substance in Turkey’s efforts to cultivate new regional ties, based on Muslim, religious and Turkiç ethnic identities". Could you expand on this?
Dr Aybet: Yes, there are two aspects to the policy. I discovered the macro and micro rules of Turkey. The macro is much more diplomatic, such as strategic engagement with existing Governments in the region or sometimes acting as an independent negotiator from the west, which is very important when Turkey uses its value-added role. The other is Turkey’s moments of power, and Turkey also capitalises on that in its foreign relations. Because Turkey has a prime minister who is capable of very colourful rhetoric, that helps sometimes and sometimes it doesn’t help that much in terms of bringing about that value add-on impediment to its regional foreign policy.
With regard to Iran, for example, I have written about this before. When we saw this very colourful rhetoric about criticising the P5-plus-1 and so forth, Turkey did all that to be able to engage Iran on its own terms. Leaving that door open is also very good on behalf of the west as well, because sometimes you cannot deal with countries like Iran by isolating them on the basis of non-acquiescence to western or international norms. Sometimes you do need a mediator that can act separately. So I stand by what I said. We saw the same thing with the rhetoric over the Uyghurs in China. You could see that, beyond that rhetoric, there was not any serious foreign policy change with regard to China; so I would say, yes, there is more rhetoric than substance.
Q115 Ann Clwyd: I think Mr Erdoğan or President Gül went to Iraq for the first time, which I thought was a quite interesting development, particularly because there are arguments between Turkey and Iraq over water. I thought it was quite significant that they actually visited Baghdad. I do not know if I am reading anything into that.
Dr Aybet: I think they have had, always, ongoing relations with Baghdad-quite intense. In fact, Turkey is one of the regional countries that is very much involved with Iraq. Trade with the north is quite significant and they have very much been involved with diplomatic relations with Baghdad as well; so I would not see it as a new thing, necessarily.
Q116 Rory Stewart: To what extent is Turkey going to run into the danger that it will be seen as pursuing a sort of neo-Ottoman policy-particularly in relation to its attitudes on Syria?
Dr Aybet: I think the word "neo-Ottoman" is quite misleading, if I may start with that. It has sometimes been used by the present Government, and any tie to a neo-Ottoman stance is I think misleading in that sense. I really do not see what it has to do with Turkey’s previous Ottoman ties, how Turkey is pursuing a policy towards Syria right now. I would put it very much in the third sphere-of realpolitik. The Government wanted to deal with all the regional powers on the basis of personal relations with leaders. Once the leaders become delegitimised they tend to waver, but eventually the Government start supporting the other side.
Q117 Rory Stewart: I suppose my concern is that it will be perceived by the Syrians and the Arab world as a neo-Ottoman policy, so I am interested in your view of how Turkish action towards Syria-and indeed their action in the Middle East-will, you might perhaps say, be misinterpreted by the Arab world.
Dr Aybet: I see what you mean. I agree with you that, on one hand, of course, the Prime Minister’s popularity on the Arab street seems to dispel the lingering misgivings about Turkey’s Ottoman heritage in the Middle East; but Syria, I agree with you, is probably quite a political turning point. In Syria, the misgivings of that period are probably lingering much longer than in other countries in the Middle East. So if there is a misperception on the part of Syria, this could, I suppose, have a negative effect on the positive populist support that Turkey gets on the Arab street. I am not so sure how that is going to work, given the present chaos in Syria, and how much any Syrian attitude is going to trickle to the region. I am not entirely sure about that.
Q118 Rory Stewart: It seems to me-contradict me if I am wrong-that he is going to have a lot of difficulty not just getting consent in the broader region, but even within Turkey, for the kind of attitudes that Turkey has taken towards Syria. The opposition parties, journalists, intellectuals and others are already very concerned about what they see as Turkey moving out of step with its traditional attitude to intervention.
Dr Aybet: I think we have to be a little careful how we read Opposition criticism, which has been forthcoming not just in this case, but in any other case where Turkey has been pursuing a much more, if you like, unorthodox or differently proactive foreign policy. I would think that internal criticisms are very much a continuation of that, and not a terrible deviation. I think internal criticisms right now are much more focused on domestic issues, rather than foreign policy overtures, with regard to Syria. So I do not think there is too much of a worry there, on the part of the Government, on internal criticism; but what you said initially-how this is going to reflect on Erdoğan’s popularity on the Arab street-is the crucial question. I really do not know which way that is going to go.
Q119 Mr Ainsworth: Can we look at American attitudes for a moment. Turkey’s independent stance-how is that viewed in America? Is America happy with it or is American opinion losing ground in Turkey?
Dr Aybet: Both, and this is why it has been very difficult to read American attitudes towards Turkey. On one hand, officially, it has voiced great concern about Turkey shifting east more than the EU or Britain has; on the other, it has been very supportive of Turkey’s regional openings, proactive policy and more independent stance. Graham Fuller wrote some time ago that Turkey should pursue a policy that is independent of the United States and the region, because having a legitimate rising power like that engaging in its own right would be good for American interests. Both opinions come out of the US in that respect.
Q120 Mr Ainsworth: Are their fears justified about turning east and heading away from the west?
Dr Aybet: To some extent. It is not the same as it was during the cold war and the immediate post-cold war era, not necessarily because Turkey is substituting one for the other; it is just becoming much more assertive in its own right in its own region, and sometimes its interests in that region will not coincide with its long-standing interests in the first sphere, which is the transatlantic relationship. But that is inevitable.
Q121 Mr Ainsworth: Can we look at NATO? Surely, the Turkish position, and its desires to be a regional player, must make life increasingly uncomfortable for Turkey within NATO.
Dr Aybet: Not necessarily, because the biggest discomfort in NATO this time last year, just before the strategic concept was announced, was missile defence. To some extent, that has something to do with Turkey being much more assertive, so you are right in the sense that Turkey’s more assertive regional foreign policy was something that the other NATO countries had to get used to. In fact, this was said by Turkey, too-they are getting used to dealing with a much more assertive Turkey. But somehow that decision was reached.
On one level, there is an adjustment on both sides for Turkey and the other NATO allies. But on the other hand, Turkey’s position in NATO-its contribution to ongoing operations and its co-operation with the missile defence system-is crucial. Unlike the EU, NATO is not really a normative organisation; it is a much more technocratic, military organisation. So if you have pockets of quite intense, ongoing co-operation on the technocratic front, it gives a strong basis for whichever biggest strategic disagreements you might have-they somehow tend to come around because of the infrastructure of that technocratic, long-standing relationship.
Q122 Mr Ainsworth: How would you read the Turkish attitude towards the NATO operations in Libya? Within its wider, more strategic positioning, how do you think it reacted towards Libya and what does that say about its thoughts towards continued membership of NATO?
Dr Aybet: Libya was a typical example of this adjustment in Turkish foreign policy. Initially, Prime Minister Erdoğan had very good relations with Gaddafi because that was part of the bigger strategic picture of cultivating personal ties with existing leaders. For that reason, he was very much against military intervention, and also because Turkey has had a long-standing foreign policy of being against any intervention in the region. Coming to your question, it is probably a deviation if we see anything with Syria.
So that was the first way that they dealt with Libya. Once it became apparent that military intervention was going to go ahead regardless, probably led by an ad hoc coalition with Anglo-French lead, the Turkish Government were very concerned about that. They preferred to bring the whole operation under NATO. In fact, they were one of the countries that really pushed to bring everything under the control of the North Atlantic Council, because they saw it as the lesser of two evils. At least they would have some control that way. At the end of it, they dealt with it cleverly, because they were able to contribute to the operation without becoming militarily involved, as well as having oversight of it all in the North Atlantic Council.
So Turkey’s use of NATO as a tool of multilateralism, as opposed to using ad hoc coalitions, will be something that we will see more of. NATO does have a value-add for Turkey in the region in that respect.
Q123 Mr Ainsworth: The position the Turkish politicians took on Libya was quite brave, politically.
Dr Aybet: Yes, and also pragmatic, I would have thought. At the end of the day, when I look at the way that Turkish foreign policy is implemented at the moment, it is terribly practical and flexible in that respect. I do not quite understand what you mean by brave. Do you mean in terms of internal criticism on the domestic front?
Q124 Mr Ainsworth: They wanted to get it within a multilateral sphere, but there were enormous dangers in doing that, in terms of becoming responsible for the operation and party to the operation.
Dr Aybet: Of course there were risks involved, but the risks of standing by and not being involved in an ad hoc coalition that would have, in the end, used NATO assets, would have been far more dangerous. I know that there was a serious calculation of risk assessment done within the Foreign Ministry. This was seen as the lesser of two evils.
Q125 Mr Ainsworth: You talked about Iran and missile defence. That has been a very difficult issue for Turkey, hasn’t it? Here is her most powerful eastern neighbour, and yet she agreed to provide facilities for the missile shield. In many ways, because of the position she has taken on NATO as a self-defence organisation, she was probably bound to do so, but that must have been very difficult. What has that done to relations with Iran? How has Turkey sought to manage that situation?
Dr Aybet: That has been the most difficult case of balancing all these different factors. The agreement reached at the NATO summit last year of Turkey hosting the radar had less to do with what gives credence to NATO as a multilateral tool and more to do with the long-term Turkish-US strategic partnership. The Turkish Government were very aware that getting this approval and getting the first phase of this missile defence system was very important for President Obama. The importance of that for US domestic politics was conveyed to the Turkish Government. The Turkish Government realised that they needed to do it in order to get US support on a long-term basis. Eventually they would like to have their own missile defence system, but they cannot do that without US Patriots. On the part of the Government, there is an interest in maintaining the long-term Turkish-US strategic partnership. Coming on board with missile defence had more to do with that than with NATO.
One compromise that was reached was that Turkey was insistent that Iran should not be named as a threat in the strategic concept document, and it was not. On the one hand, where you position the radar indicates where the threat is likely to come from, but, on the other hand, the way that Turkey and the US look at this is a lot closer than, say, Turkey and France. A lot depends on how you look at classical deterrence theory. France, for example, was much more insistent on putting a name to the threat, because it sees it as a political signal, very much like cold war deterrence, whereas the US looks at the whole system as something useable should the threat arise, and Turkey looks at it in the same way. So this idea that it is there for generic threats in the long term-regional and global-is something that both Turkey and the US share.
I think that a puzzling thing for me that I have been reading recently-I am not sure if the Committee wanted to ask me more about what Turkey would do if Iran went nuclear, but if you permit me, I will just jump in and say this.
Chair: Tell us.
Mr Ainsworth: You are in full flow. You should carry on.
Dr Aybet: I have found what I have heard coming from US and UK policy circles lately quite puzzling. One of the most detrimental effects of Iran going nuclear might be proliferation spiralling out of control in the Middle East-Saudi Arabia. What was interesting to me was that, should Iran go nuclear, the potential proliferators that were mentioned were Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
Mr Ainsworth: And Egypt.
Dr Aybet: Yes, and Egypt. I cannot really talk on behalf of Saudi Arabia and Egypt, but I think I know a little about Turkey, so I will talk a little about that. Turkey relies on its normative power and trade links, not military balancing, to assert influence in the region, so any new nuclear imbalance in the region will not cause Turkey to address this through military means. I think the Saudis would be more concerned with a nuclear military imbalance than Turkey.
For Turkey, I think the major concern if you had an increasingly nuclear region-not just Iran, but other proliferators-would be the dangers of nuclear exchange, whether accidental or intentional, and that, to me, also says that Turkey is really not interested in proliferating. Also, Turkey is not interested in any nuclear confrontation, in terms of a deterrence posture, so, again, this is something that it would not want to do.
One thesis supporting the spiralling proliferation argument was the assumption of US disengagement or decoupling; if Iran were to go nuclear, the US would not risk a nuclear war to protect its allies. I was very puzzled to read that, because it sounded a lot like the extended deterrence arguments during the cold war-would the US protect Europe? Would Washington commit suicide for Paris?-de Gaulle’s famous phrase. In reality, the only country that is theoretically protected by any US nuclear umbrella in the region is Turkey, because it is a NATO member under Article 5.
Interestingly enough, the Turks do not fear a US nuclear decoupling if Iran goes nuclear. They have known that they are pretty much on their own for some time, and my reading is that faith in Article 5 has never really been that strong anyway. That alone completely refutes the argument that Turkey may go nuclear if Iran does. I was very puzzled to read this, which is why I though it was important to make that point.
Q126 Rory Stewart: What could Turkey do to work with the Arab League, in particular on the Arab peace process in Syria? Does it have the right leverage and influence? Could it be a key player in ensuring that the terms of that proposal are fulfilled?
Dr Aybet: They have leverage over individual countries I think, not over the Arab League as a whole. When Prime Minister Erdoğan addressed the Arab League in Cairo-I think it was towards the end of the summer-he had a lot of popularity in that respect. When Turkey has influence or clout, vis-à-vis the Arab League in the region, it is usually to do with Israel, but this is a totally different situation. To tell you the truth, I think it has a little less to do with Turkey’s position vis-à-vis Israel, if it is going to have any clout over the Arab League in getting any deal over Syria, so I am not sure how much influence it will have.
Q127 Chair: Turning to Turkey-EU co-operation, and NATO, how much of a problem is the Cyprus issue in the Turkey-EU relationship?
Dr Aybet: It is one of the major impediments to any progress. Cyprus, at the moment, has blocked two chapters-energy and education. It is not the only country to have done that: the EU has blocked eight chapters, and France has blocked five. But Turkey is also refusing to implement the additional protocol by opening its ports to Cyprus. It would really like to see the isolation of Northern Cyprus end, and it is quite frustrated about that. It also feels that Cyprus has had no incentive to co-operate, ever since it was allowed to join the EU while rejecting the Annan plan. The lingering of that is a major impediment.
One of the key issues that are blocking other things is NATO-EU co-operation. The way that works is that Cyprus has not applied to join NATO’s partnership for peace-it is not official membership, but it is partnership-because it thinks that Turkey will veto it. As a result, when NATO and the EU get together, and because the EU is not represented as a whole, they cannot discuss the bigger strategic issues. Finding a solution to that kind of blockage to the NATO-EU strategic partnership would be very important.
Q128 Chair: As you know, Cyprus was discussed at the UN two weeks ago. Do you think this is capable of resolution in the short term?
Dr Aybet: It is very hard to tell. With the Cyprus issue, there are all these junctures where you think there is finally a window that will open, and then it closes very quickly. That is why I do not think I should say anything that would indicate that I think this or that about what has been happening recently. I think we have to wait and see.
Q129 Chair: Maybe the discovery of oil will drive Cyprus to negotiate.
Dr Aybet: Perhaps.
Q130 Chair: Turkey seems to be working well with NATO in Afghanistan.
Dr Aybet: Yes.
Q131 Chair: In fact, it has given an open-ended commitment to Afghanistan. Is that simply because Turkey sees it as its regional duty, or is there some other reason?
Dr Aybet: There are two reasons, I think. First, as you mentioned, it is in Turkey’s interests to see regional stability. Therefore, involvement in Afghanistan and seeing a much more stable and secure Afghanistan is important for Turkey. So it has a national interest there. Also, Turkey has had this long-standing tradition of contributing to NATO out-of-area operations since the end of the cold war. In that sense, the military, although it has diminished power politically, still has considerable technocratic power with regard to NATO relations.
For Turkey, having this very professional army that contributes to all these operations, is also a matter of pride. I think Turkey likes to be involved in these ongoing operations as a NATO member because that is what it has traditionally done. So there are two things involved in the Afghanistan operations and also, obviously, in the Balkans.
Q132 Chair: Absolutely. Finally, do you think EU-Turkey foreign policy relations can be improved in any way? Could the EU recruit Turkey as a foreign policy partner in any way?
Dr Aybet: I think "recruit" may not be the right word.
Chair: It is the wrong way of putting it, maybe.
Dr Aybet: I know that the EU and Baroness Ashton, in particular, are very positive about Turkey’s informal engagement on regional issues like Iran-she is actually very positive about the Foreign Minister’s role in that, although Turkey is not part of P5 plus 1. So I think there is already some informal process-I would not say structure-whereby Turkey is acting like a foreign policy partner.
If the question is how we should make that a little more structural, my recommendation would be not to present it as an alternative to EU accession. Let the accession process carry on, because otherwise that is going to be very sensitive for Turkey. I know that you have never had a foreign policy partnership with a candidate country separate from the accession process, but there is a first time for everything-why not? If there is going to be a special partnership, and it might be considered somewhere down the road as an alternative to full EU membership, then it should never be called a privileged partnership, because that very much has negative connotations for Turkey.
Q133 Chair: We very much take that point onboard. Maybe a special relationship?
Dr Aybet: A special relationship-I do not know.
Q134 Chair: Dr Aybet, as it happens, we have the Foreign Minister, Mr Davutoğlu, and Cathy Ashton coming to see us next week, so we will put these points to them. Can I thank you very much for coming along? Have we covered all the points you want to make?
Dr Aybet: Yes, I think we have.
Q135 Chair: Thank you very much indeed. It is very much appreciated.
Dr Aybet: Thank you very much.
Examination of Witness
Witness: Dr Philip Robins, Reader in Middle East Politics and Faculty Fellow, St Antony’s College, University of Oxford, gave evidence.
Q136 Chair: Dr Robins, thank you very much indeed for coming along. I know you are a busy man. Can I welcome Dr Philip Robins, who is a Reader in Middle East politics and Faculty Fellow at St Antony’s College, University of Oxford? Is there anything you would like to say by way of an opening statement, Dr Robins?
Dr Robins: That is very kind of you, Mr Chairman. Maybe I could just come in with three basic points which I would like to make from the outset about the nature of Turkish foreign policy making.
The first-this may be to some extent to state the obvious, but I think it is still worth emphasising-is that Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the Prime Minister, really is the man in Turkish politics in general, and in Turkish foreign policy making in particular. That does not mean to say that others do not contribute or that others do not seek to codify his pronouncements and his output, but essentially he is the chief decision maker.
Secondly, because the Prime Minister is the chief decision maker and so much of his style is a very personal style-a very populist style, you might say-the institutional aspects of foreign policy making are easily lost: the personal often eclipses or trumps the institutional. To some extent, this explains some of the rather jerky directions in which Turkish foreign policy sometimes progresses. The institutional impacts on foreign policy but fleetingly when the personal is not occupying that area.
The third point is the importance of prosperity, the importance of wealth creation and the importance of business and trade in Turkish foreign policy making. This is important of course, first of all, for the health of the Turkish economy but, secondly, for the health of the AKP and, more particularly, for the health of the career of Mr Erdoğan. It is through the securing of prosperity-partly through foreign policy and foreign relations-that the AKP has been able to place itself in the sort of position whereby it can dominate domestic politics. There may be other things that are important here as well, but the importance of wealth creation or prosperity as a key to the long-term future in government of the AKP and its leader is really very central.
Q137 Chair: How would you characterise the relationship between Mr Davutoğlu and Prime Minister Erdoğan? How do they work together on foreign policy?
Dr Robins: It is a very close relationship. There is not the proverbial Rizla cigarette paper between the two positions of the two men. After all, they have worked together for a long time. Before Mr Davutoğlu was Foreign Minister, he was a senior adviser in the Foreign Ministry. He worked very closely with Mr Erdoğan and, indeed, with President Gül. In fact, his relationship with President Gül goes back at least until the mid-1990s. I remember going to see President Gül-deputy, as he was then-back in the mid-1990s and being advised to go and talk to Dr Professor Davutoğlu, as being the ideologist of the party.
It is really quite remarkable how these three men have retained such a close relationship over such an extended period of time, with so many foreign policy issues out there which, under normal circumstances, one would have expected perhaps to put pressure on the relationship or even derailed the relationship. At the end of the day, I think that it survives and prospers because Mr Davutoğlu defers to the Prime Minister-certainly governmentally as a senior figure. He defers to Mr Erdoğan, and he brings the value-added to the relationship of giving it a presentational sophistication and maturity, which actually makes foreign policy in Turkey perhaps look more coherent than it is.
Q138 Ann Clwyd: Can you talk about the influence of the military now? When I first went to Turkey in 1984, I went on behalf of Amnesty International because the Turkish Peace Association was on trial. It was a very frightening time to be there. What influence does the military have over foreign policy and security policy? I know that it has diminished, but how far has it diminished?
Dr Robins: It certainly has diminished, and it has been diminishing steadily since 2007, but what the military is trying to achieve is almost a partnership with the Government whereby the military reserves its right to input into policy areas that are properly those of the military. Security issues are very important because the military can claim that no other institution in the country is in quite the position as the military itself to be able to make technical and specialist judgments.
At the same time, the military knows that the old relationship of Governments deferring to the military or certainly being subordinate to the military has gone. The days when the military could define pretty much any subject as being a security issue-energy, education and so on-have definitely passed, too. It is a more chastened military; it is a military that has lost a number of its senior generals, particularly over the last few months. The military understands, certainly under the present circumstances, that the maximisation of its influence necessitates a much more guarded and cautious approach to policy making.
Q139 Ann Clwyd: Could you talk a bit about this Ergenekon conspiracy, which seems to be very widespread, but which some people say is not real? What is your assessment of it?
Dr Robins: The Turkish state-and the Turkish political system, for that matter-is often opaque. There are few issues that are more opaque than this particular one. It is certainly true that both sides have their position. One side says that this is payback time from the AKP for hostile actions in the past against it by former military figures, former journalists, former bureaucrats etc. Others say, "No." There has been a history in Turkey of conspiracies of hidden activity aimed at subverting the Government of the day; aimed even at bringing the military back to power.
One is tempted to say that the reality is somewhere in the middle. I think it is not unusual to hear anecdotes about loose talk around the dining room table at parties in apartments in Istanbul and Ankara, especially with former, retired, military people present at such events; but at the same time, I think talk is cheap, and there is a lot of bravado, conjecture and speculation about what individuals might be doing, might be planning to do-or would like to do.
So I think it is very difficult to get to the heart of this; but certainly the long, protracted, drawn-out nature of the case has got to a stage where it begins to infringe ideas of natural justice. I think it may have suited the purposes of the Government to intimidate, a little bit, some of its opponents-some of its past opponents: a little bit of payback, perhaps. But I think from now onwards this is much more likely to be detrimental to the reputation of the Government, rather than to enhance its position somehow within the power-political game in Ankara.
Q140 Ann Clwyd: Should the UK now regard the weakening of Turkish military influence as permanent?
Dr Robins: I think that it, in many ways, feels permanent, and I think that is partly due to the domestic dynamics in Turkey that I have outlined, but it is also due to broader international factors. As long as the global norm is to move decisively away from the military in politics, then that is likely to further underpin that trend in Turkey.
Of course, very few things we may consider to be absolutely irreversible. If Egypt ends up with a military president in a couple of years’ time; if there are serious domestic problems in countries as a result of economic problems, resulting in a drift towards authoritarianism; then perhaps the idea of the military making a comeback might in some way seem less outlandish. But I think at the moment the working position would be that the weakening of the military’s influence is irreversible.
Q141 Mr Watts: Mr Robins, do you agree with the FCO’s view that Turkey is a stable force in the region?
Dr Robins: I think Turkey has become more and more plausible as a stable country-as an island of stability in an area that is somewhat unstable, whether that instability was the unstableness of authoritarianism or is the instability, now, of the Arab spring. Particularly over the last eight or nine years, the AKP has given, I suppose, a certain governmental ballast to the system, and that that has helped the cause of a stable Turkey; but I do not think we should be complacent about Turkey and governance in Turkey.
One of the things that I worry about is the relative absence of checks and balances in the Turkish system. Yes, they exist. The institutions are there: Parliament, Government, the presidency and so on. The trouble, if you like, is that they are now all occupied by and dominated by the AKP. That makes balanced and judicious government a little bit more difficult to achieve in the Turkish case.
As for those around Turkey, one of the great values of Turkey since the end of the cold war is the fact that it has been a force for stability and for the status quo generally. As I have said, after the end of the cold war and the outbreak of a variety of regional conflicts-whether it was in the Balkans with the Bosnian civil war or in the Middle East with the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait or in other areas such as Iraq-Turkey has been a force for stability.
Q142 Mr Watts: You touched on the judicial system, which many of us have worries about because it is slow and does not seem that independent. Is that something that you think can be developed over the next few years to become more independent of the Government themselves. Can the process be speeded up so that we are not having people in prison awaiting trial for long periods of time?
Dr Robins: Of course speeding up the judiciary and the pace at which courts work more generally are challenges for us all. There is a perennial problem there.
Q143 Mr Watts: Ten years in some cases is not usual in most democracies.
Dr Robins: That is true, and it is much more typical of the Middle East more generally than it is of the European space to which Turkey aspires. The idea of the judiciary becoming truly and robustly independent is very difficult where you have a single, dominant party with a very clear leader whose modus operandi leans in the direction of populist politics. There is of course a spirited nature to the judiciary in Turkey, but the nature of politics in the country and the expectation of the outcome of the political process are very much that the winner takes the spoils. It would be very difficult for the judiciary to push back on that in an effective way.
Q144 Rory Stewart: A very interesting opportunity is being presented in Syria at the moment by the Arab League and by its peace plan. Can we take that as an example of Turkish foreign policy? Is there anything that Turkey could do to play a constructive role in Syria at the moment?
Dr Robins: The Turks have developed a relationship with the Arab League over the past couple of years, which has been very close and supportive. It is certainly conceivable that the Arab League as an institution and Turkey as an individual Government of a neighbouring state can develop ideas together and understandings about the approach to the Syrian case and about the sequencing of different responses in Syria.
The Turks are, to some degree, a prisoner of their own miscalculated policies towards Syria over the last few years. They invested a tremendous amount in the relationship at the highest level and then they found themselves in a position where they were back-pedalling because of the violent and hostile policies of the Syrian regime towards its own people. But I think that clearly-Turkey is a neighbour of Syria-there are some very important implications for Turkey of what is happening in Syria, in terms of public opinion at home, which is becoming increasingly exercised at the apparent impunity with which Damascus kills its people, and the issue of refugees as people are driven out of Syria. That is something that, because of recent history, exercises the minds of officials and the Government in Ankara.
Q145 Rory Stewart: What are the culture and the capacity of Turkish foreign policy? It’s fine that they have ideas that are important to them, but do they get on and do things? Do they get their hands dirty? Are they going to have a bold, dynamic strategy of holding people’s feet to the fire, pushing for a resolution and getting observers on the ground? Are they going to have anything like that in Egypt? How active are their diplomats likely to be? How active are their Government likely to be?
Dr Robins: I think pretty active. We have already seen this, as far as Syria is concerned. Davutoğlu and Erdoğan publicly expressed frustrations at the non co-operative nature of the Syrian regime, and said that it was making promises and then not implementing them. We have seen the Turks being an early trigger, if you like, of criticism of the regime.
But we’ve also seen the Turks acting, I think, with a certain amount of energy and showing that much of their intuition is right about the region. Here, I think that the early responses to the Arab spring are a very good example. What the Turks did in Tunisia and Egypt in particular, and then later, admittedly after a delay, in Libya, was to instinctively say, "The people must decide. This is the only way in which what’s happening with the regime violence against its people can be resolved." I think that there, Turkey was falling back on first principles, which shows just how far Turkey has come in becoming socialised into the values of, maybe not liberal democracy, but certainly democracy that is somewhere between the liberal and illiberal ends of the continuum.
I think that that was immensely important. It was an important regional player making a clear statement-a statement that everyone else on the ground had to deal with. I think that that’s a good example of how responsive Turkey can be.
Q146 Rory Stewart: Statements, views and positions are one thing, but an active foreign policy of the sort that the United States would conduct would involve covert operations, intelligence gathering, aggressive diplomatic activity and pressures through individual capitals-all the leverage of power politics, going far beyond aspirations and statements. Is that how Turkey would conduct itself in the Middle East?
Dr Robins: Well, I think one has to distinguish between the Middle East neighbours of Turkey and the rest of the Middle East. The rest of the Middle East is obviously further away, so the practical opportunities for those sorts of activities are fewer. In any case, I think that the Turks are much happier and more relaxed about the vehicle of soft power now than would have been the case in the past. If you go back 20 or more years, certainly a hard power response would have been one that would have come much more instinctively, particularly to the Turkish state. What I think the Turks have been trying to do is to explore the efficacy of soft power, which has been considerable, and at the same time, to pursue soft power as a way of parrying some of the criticisms that have been made, albeit for having too much of a power political approach to its views in the past.
The neighbouring countries, however, are different. The situation in Iraq is certainly different. It presents a hard security challenge to Turkey, particularly in the north of the country. The Iranian situation is very delicate. Turkey seems to have found itself in a position of regional confrontation as far as Iran is concerned. Syria is the country where the sort of involvement that you have described is most likely to take place. Whether it will take place, whether it will take place coherently and at what stage it will kick in is more difficult to judge. I think that one can imagine Turkey playing that sort of role or selecting some of the instruments that you have described as part of its attempt to constrain the Syrian regime and to ultimately ensure that the loss of life that we are seeing at a steady level is brought to an end.
Q147 Ann Clwyd: Can I ask you about the Kurdish question? You talked about increased military activity on the border with Iraq and Kurdistan. How real is that? In the past, I was with the Turkish military over a three-day period when they were chasing PKK rebels within Iraq: they arrested one man. So I always ask how real the threat is. It has been going on for at least 25 years. The PKK raises its head every so often and then it goes down again. One of the issues is the continuing linguistic and cultural rights of the Kurds in south-east Turkey. Turkey has gone some way to doing something about it, but it has not gone as far as it should have gone, in my view. I want your assessment of the threat, because sometimes I think it is hyped up.
Dr Robins: You are certainly right that the sort of casualty estimates that have been made by the Turkish military following or supposedly following insurgents across the border has been exaggerated in the past. I suppose, in a way, that is what armies do. When they have been given a task they tend to say that they have done it and that they have done it well beyond what could be expected.
I think that your question is much more about the PKK threat today. It is not a negligible or unimportant threat. We have, after all, seen on three or four occasions, over the end of the summer and the autumn, attacks by PKK insurgents on the Turkish military, which has resulted in significant loss of life-in the 20s to 30s-as a result of such operations.
Such operations and events are of course distressing in their own right, not least because they make any sort of rapprochement between the Kurdish part of the country and the main Turkish parts of the country much less likely, but on this occasion the developments have been much more concerning, because this was supposed to be the time when the new Government would begin to draft a new constitution. That new constitution, as well as being a much more liberal document than the one we have had so far, which goes back to 1982, would be a new document for a new partnership between Turks and Kurds living together within the overall community of Turkey as citizens with equal rights and with a much more devolved Government. This is what we were looking for; this appeared to be the promise that the AKP made after the election over the summer. One of the regrettable things has been that these insurgent operations have derailed that process; they have resulted in a military response, rather than a substantively political response, and they have completely changed the national agenda as far as the direction of political reform is concerned.
One fears, of course, that this is an attempt to polarise politics again and to stir up the cauldron of inter-ethnic tensions. On that basis, none of us can afford to be complacent, because there are significant Turkish and Kurdish populations across Europe. We cannot afford to be complacent because, in many ways, the fortune of this constitution, which is supposed to be in the drafting, will determine the direction in which Turkey moves in the future and whether it really does consolidate the values of liberal democracy at home.
Thirdly, this is a crucial issue as far as whether Turkey really does emerge as a moral force in its backyard and its environs. When it first addressed the Arab spring, it appeared to have a tremendous amount of moral authority in its voice because it had a democratic system and because it was moving towards, and then had, national elections. That only works as long as the Kurdish issue is not bedevilling the political system such that it cannot be addressed through democratic and liberal values.
Q148 Ann Clwyd: What co-operation is there between the Iraqi Government, the Kurdish regional government and the Turks on this issue? Is there a stand-off between them or is there actual co-operation?
Dr Robins: I think Turkey’s relationship with Iraq is in much better straits now than it has been in recent years, when Turkey pretty much had no real relationship with Baghdad, and its relationship with the Kurdish areas of northern Iraq was rather adversarial. That has changed, although whether it has moved far enough and fast enough is a moot point. But now, the Turkish Government have good relations with the KRG. Recently, Massoud Barzani was in Istanbul for some serious talks with the Turkish authorities. Interestingly, the outcome was that Barzani said that he was unhappy with the PKK insurgency across the border, but that Turkey could not expect the KDP and other Kurdish factions in northern Iraq to, if you like, do its dirty work for it. The clear inference from that is that there needs to be a political settlement, rather than just another iterative attempt to bring a military solution into play.
I think Turkey now has better relations with Baghdad. It has relations with most of the political movements and parties in Iraq, so it now has an Iraq strategy, rather than just a northern Iraq, or an exclusively Kurdish northern Iraq, strategy. Having said that, at the last election in Iraq, Turkey very much supported the Ayad Allawi Iraqiya faction. By being seen to be very much in the corner of Iraqiya, it allowed itself to be painted as a somewhat sectarian player. It was basically seen to be supporting Sunni Arabs within the political process against, in particular, the Maliki state faction in Iraq. After having made very good progress since the mid-2000s, there was a hesitation in developing a rounded and holistic relationship with Iraq as a society more generally.
Q149 Mr Watts: Do Turkey and Israel retain a diplomatic or security relationship? How strong is that, given recent events?
Dr Robins: The Turkish-Israeli relationship was waning through the mid to late-2000s, but it was retained particularly in areas like military co-operation, intelligence co-operation, a certain amount of trade and so on. That was the situation until the rupture more recently over the inability or unwillingness of the Israeli Government to offer an apology and compensation over the Mavi Marmara tragedy. Since then, formal diplomatic relations have been downgraded to second-secretary level, which is the level that they were at when relations were in very bad straits back in the late 1970s/early 1980s.
One other casualty, apart from formal diplomatic relations, has been some of the military agreements that were signed in previous years between the two sides. We can certainly say that there has been real damage done to the relationship.
Q150 Mr Watts: What the Committee is trying to assess is how much of that is for public consumption. Obviously, a position is taken by Israel and a position is taken by Turkey. Have some security and diplomatic connections been maintained, but behind closed doors?
Dr Robins: It would be my assumption and intuitive sense that some of them would be retained. But the reason why I wanted to mention the military issue and the cancellation of some of the military contracts is because these are precisely the sorts of things that would have been retained under the table up to this point. The fact that they have also been axed shows what a profound impact those series of events have had on bilateral relations. So I would say it is somewhere between the two. It is pared right back, but there is still some in existence.
Q151 Mr Watts: The UK has good relationships with the US, Israel, Turkey-they are all our allies. How do we keep all the balls in the air? How do we deal with the fact that the relationship between those three bodies is not necessarily as good as it should be and yet we are allied to all three? How do we balance our commitment to those allies without upsetting the balance between us?
Dr Robins: The relationship with Israel and Turkey is one that we and other friends of both nations can work on. After all, we are not like the United States, which has a more global reach, which means that many more factors are important. As far as Turkey and Israel are concerned, I argue that neither has an interest in such a major rupture. You mentioned public consumption. I think the rupture was partly for public consumption, certainly. I think that public opinion in Turkey is definitely really animated about the Palestinian issue, and the Government understand that and they understand that they have to be very careful in the way that they handle public opinion. This is not an issue over which to be dismissive, at all. But I think it goes further than that, too. I think the AKP itself, and certainly the leadership of the AKP, also feels very angry about the Palestinian issue and the treatment of the Palestinians.
When the Turkish Government was frustrated at the inability or unwillingness of the Israelis to come forward with their deal to end the problems over the Mavi Marmara, the response from the Turkish side was so swift, so focused and so detailed that it reflected their state of mind over such issues and, of course, the Mavi Marmara itself and the killing of Turks on that vessel. That gave an insight into the thinking of the leadership itself. So it is partly about public opinion, but it is also partly about the personal involvement of the leadership on this particular issue.
Q152 Mr Watts: But do you think that if, for example, Britain were to side with the Americans on the Palestinian issue, that would affect our relationship with Turkey? Is there a choice to be made there, or would Turkey accept that we have a relationship not just with it but with America and with Israel, and that the Turks cannot expect us to take a position that is the same as theirs?
Dr Robins: Yes. I would not say that Turkish foreign policy is indexed to the Palestinian issue; I think that is going too far. I am sure the Turks would want us to take a position which was much more pro-Palestinian, say over UN membership, and they were very critical on the UNESCO funding issue as well. So I think the Turks would like to be seen as an effective vote-gatherer on behalf of the Palestinians. That would play very much to the conception of the role that the Turkish Government have for themselves. But I would be very surprised if penalties were introduced for third parties that are friendly countries; I would be quite surprised at that. The real hostility is over the disproportionate nature of the violence on the ground in the occupied territories and in other places-like the Mavi Marmara.
Q153 Mr Watts: How did the Turkey-Brazil-Iranian nuclear initiative come about? Is that something that is ongoing? How did it materialise?
Dr Robins: Something that is not focused on enough is the role and experience that the Turks had when they were a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council-I think it was from 2008 to 2010. First, they had to get elected and, given the extent to which Turkey as a country has been vilified in international institutions over the years, they decided that they would have to throw everything at getting elected to the Security Council, and that is what they did.
There was a huge and very impressive-and certainly a tireless-campaign globally to rally the world’s nations behind the Turkish bid to join the Security Council. This was successful, of course, but in many ways it was an experience that took the Turkish leadership in directions and to continents where they virtually had not been before, in terms of lobbying and trying to generate this support. The subsequent membership of the Security Council gave Turkey a taste of playing a bigger role-in its own region, of course, but even beyond that at a more global level. So the Turkish Government, as a result of this experience, certainly does not want for ambition, particularly in areas where it feels it can make a contribution, such as mediation, for instance, which is an area where it has been really quite tireless over the last few years.
Q154 Mr Watts: So you think this is an initiative that was a start-that Turkey sees itself playing this role more and more, as it becomes a more powerful player, not just in its region but internationally.
Dr Robins: I think clearly more so in its region-hence the attempt to bring the Syrians and the Israelis together, the attempts to bring the Azerbaijanis and the Armenians together, and so on. The Turks have, maybe, learned a lesson or two about how difficult it is to do this. If it was that easy, these things would have been done a long time ago; but I think there is a sort of dogged persistence on the Turkish side to maintain this as part of their foreign policy portfolio, and as a way of trying to neutralise potentially problem areas-and problem areas that can be bad for stability and trade. As I said earlier, do not underestimate the importance of trade and prosperity as drivers in foreign policy.
I think the Iranian nuclear issue was a very attractive issue to try to address. It enabled the Turks to join forces with their old friends the Brazilians, with whom they had worked very closely on the Security Council. Certainly the Turks believed that they were working with the blessing of the US State Department. I am not sure whether the full story of this whole engagement has really been told, but I think what happened was that there was a certain misunderstanding about how far the Turks and the Brazilians could go.
The Turks and the Brazilians thought they had a deal. The Americans thought that the Iranians were just playing politics in a very clever way, and trying to divide Turkey and the Brazilians from the Americans. It was on that basis that the whole thing broke up in disarray, with the Turkish side very angry and bruised at the whole experience. I think the narrative that Turkey was somehow trying to go it alone or was turning its back on the Americans, or was being pro-Iranian, was far too overcooked.
Q155 Mr Watts: Taking it up to date, on that basis, how does Turkey want to see the Iranian situation develop? Given that it has had its fingers burnt, in international terms, how does it see the Iranian problem being resolved?
Dr Robins: Turkey has got itself into a bit of a fix over Iran.
Chair: We all have, haven’t we?
Dr Robins: Amen. Over the last 32 years, most of the time the Turkish strategy towards the Islamic Republic of Iran has been to consciously try to avoid riling Tehran. The emphasis has been on areas of partnership such as trade and economic co-operation and on not being too quick to rise to Iranian provocations, of which there have been many. They include Iranian dissidents being apprehended in Turkey and shipped back to Iran and the refusal of Iranian visitors to visit Ataturk’s mausoleum and so on. Turkey has been purposefully slow to be provoked by such developments.
Over the years in the US and the UK, that has been somewhat difficult to understand on occasion, but in a sense the proof of the pudding has been in the eating over the long term. What we have seen over the long term is that the political problems between the two sides have been managed pretty effectively from a Turkish perspective. In a way, Turkish mediation was a bit more of a proactive aspect of the same sort of thing-you know, there is a problem here, look for a solution and, by doing so, maintain and manage a bilateral relationship with Iran that otherwise could be very much more problematic. The problem though is with the emergence of the Syrian crisis. Given the very close strategic relationship between Iran and Syria and that Turkey is becoming a leading state as far as the condemnation of Syria is concerned, Turkey has put itself on the other side as far as the fault line of regional politics is concerned. Assuming that the Syrian situation gets worse, that will be a big difficulty. It will put a big strain on the relationship which otherwise has been managed but has always had a combustible potential to it.
Q156 Sir John Stanley: Turkey has this pivotal position between Europe and the Middle East. Can you give us your assessment over the 18 months or so that the present Government have been in office as to how well or how not so well they have been playing their hand towards Turkey in relation to Turkey’s pivotal position astride Europe and the Middle East?
Dr Robins: I have always been a big believer that managing Turkey and developing a relationship with Turkey is pretty much 80% presentation and 20% substance. Of course the substance is important. Bilateral trade and bilateral economic relations are important. The whole issue of European Union membership-and the fact that things are not moving very quickly, but are still very much on the table as a priority for Ankara-is important, but getting the presentation right is important as well. One can go a long way almost purely on the basis of presentation than perhaps might be evident. Viewed from the Turkish end, the coalition Government seem to have got things right and done pretty well at getting the public diplomacy right. We have seen that through declaratory policy and the emphasis that has been placed on trade that lies somewhere between the substantive and the presentational. We have seen that in terms of the very successful meeting at Ditchley-the Tatli Dil, the round table between opinion formers in Turkey and in the United Kingdom.
Of course, the push on Turkey is also very much situated in a wider context, with the UK trying to develop closer relations with important and rising powers more generally. But that also plays well as far as the Turks are concerned, so when the Turks see themselves as being part of a strategy, which also extends to India, China and so on, that is a very comfortable position if you are Turkey, and if you are looking at the UK’s position and the UK’s policy. The last 18 months have been good for bilateral relations.
Q157 Chair: That was excellent. Thank you very much indeed. Do you think that you have made all the points that you want to make?
Dr Robins: I am content, Chairman.
Q158 Chair: Thank you very much indeed. It is very much appreciated that you came along.
Examination of Witness
Witness: Dr Mina Toksoz, Head of Country Risk, Standard Bank International (giving evidence in a personal capacity), gave evidence.
Q159 Chair: Our third witness is Dr Toksoz, who will talk to us about the economy and economic issues. Is there anything you would like to say by way of opening remarks?
Dr Toksoz: I can do, if you would like me to. There are four basic points. It is very important to understand and get right the long-term prospects for Turkey. I don’t know how many of you have managed to look at the presentation I sent round, but a number of very significant structural changes have taken place in the Turkish economy over the past decade, which puts it in a very different position today in terms of growth prospects than it was before. Ten years ago, you had a massive public debt; 80% of budget revenues were going to pay interest payments on that debt; inflation and interest rates were in double digits, and so on. The massive change that has taken place in the past 10 years in these indicators has opened up growth prospects tremendously.
For one thing, only about 15% of budget revenues now go to pay interest payments, leaving the rest for infrastructure, education, health and so on. Turkish people are better educated now; they have better health services and infrastructure is improving at a very fast pace. All these things suggest a very positive momentum in terms of growth long term. The other factor long term is that the banking sector, which was restructured in the 2000-01 crisis, is well regulated and quite prudent.
Credit processes are well run and-although Turkey has made very fast progress in the past three or four years in terms of credit growth-in terms of credit to GDP ratios or the macro-ratios, there is more scope for credit-driven growth and domestic-driven growth in Turkey at a time when the global economy is going to be fairly slow, and its export markets are going to be fairly slow. One major constraint to all this is that the country has a very low savings rate. The external foreign payment gap is large, which becomes a major constraint to these very positive growth prospects. That is something that is facing the economy in the short term over the next couple of years that they have got to overcome.
As to the third theme, I was asked to say a few words on the EU Customs Union aspect of the economy. The main point I would like to make on that is that issues have been raised about the workings of the Customs Union. Certain things may be resolved, and there may be some progress, but significant further progress with the Customs Union will be difficult without EU membership becoming a lot more possible. As far as EU membership is concerned, the process itself has become a bit of a barrier. It is almost like the UK needs to get around the process and invite Turkey to as many forums as possible for Turkey to play a part. It is almost like it should ignore the process, relate to Turkey much more bilaterally and encourage other EU members to do so, as well.
The main point I would like to make-you can ask me for more details on this-on how UK policy should relate to Turkey is that you should keep in mind the long-term trajectory and prospects of Turkey. Because of the stop-go nature of its economy, it has a tendency to go into crises and so on. The important thing is not to get derailed politically by the twists and turns that Turkey may do strategically, politically or economically, but to keep in mind a longer term trajectory. The Turkish economy is now $750 billion; it is the 16th biggest in the world. Turkey wants to get into the top 10, and while I am not sure that it will by 2023, it will certainly move up a few more places. It is going to become a major regional economic power, and the UK has to understand that the process of it becoming a regional power needs to settle. The UK needs to relate to Turkey in that context, to accept that that is where Turkey is and where it is going, and to shape its policies accordingly.
Q160 Chair: Looking at the figures you gave us in the presentation, I must say that most countries would die to have the debt reduction figures that Turkey has achieved. What do you say to those who say that the current growth is not sustainable and that anybody who runs the current account deficit that Turkey is running could make their economy grow? What is your reaction to that?
Dr Toksoz: That’s right. My short-term forecast is that the economy will have to slow quite significantly next year to be able to bring down the current account deficit. Turkish policy missed a beat in 2010, when there was quite a strong recovery out of the recession. They did not hold back domestic demand sufficiently because the election was coming up in June 2010, and they wanted strong growth in the lead-up to it. They have been very slow in tightening policy. The policy just went in the wrong direction, and it is now going to have to tighten when the global economy slows next year. So it has gone in a pro-cyclical direction. The point is that Turkey has misshaped the policy in the past couple of years, and it will have to pay for that with slower growth in the next couple of years, but the overall structural drivers of growth are still there, so it will come back up. There will be a bit of a stop-go until Turkey learns how to manage this current account deficit.
Q161 Ann Clwyd: As you know, much of the infrastructure in the rural parts of the country is quite underdeveloped. Given the recent earthquakes-I am thinking in particular about the one in Van, which is very much underdeveloped-will Turkey have to do something to try to put that right quickly and invest more in those areas?
Dr Toksoz: Somebody told me an astonishing statistic the other day, that 60% of Turkish housing is unlicensed. That means that they are probably not earthquake-proof, are very energy inefficient and the rest of it. The housing and infrastructure needs of Turkey, particularly in the eastern regions, are massive.
I think that there is a huge effort. There is the massive housing programme-TOKÝ-which is a little untransparent in terms of exactly how it is being funded through the budget, but it is building houses at a very fast pace. There is now an effort to speed up the road and rail network in the country. There is a privatisation programme coming up in relation to the road network, which has been talked about for a couple of years and will probably take off. I would say that certainly, the western infrastructure is now really in very good shape. It can get better, but it’s really getting there around certain urban centres, such as Gaziantep and Konya. There is now high-speed rail between Ankara and Konya. There are certain economic poles and infrastructure grows around them. They are also planning to open up a lot more airports. So there is a big infrastructure programme in place. How fast that goes and how reliable it will be in terms of providing safe housing and so on is not certain.
Q162 Ann Clwyd: There has been an increase of thinking in British investment in the south-east recently. How do you see that developing?
Dr Toksoz: Which investment sectors? I haven’t followed that.
Q163 Ann Clwyd: Agriculture, basically.
Dr Toksoz: I think the south-east Anatolia project, which has been going since the 1980s and was started under Demirel, is finally coming to fruition. I think that there is huge potential in south-east Anatolia in terms of agriculture. I know that there are very big firms operating there, very much in relation to export-oriented products. I think there is a huge prospect there, in agriculture.
Other sectors that should also be looked at by UK industry are education, health, infrastructure, energy and pharmaceuticals. Health and education are going to develop quite a lot, so those are the sectors that UK business can contribute to.
Q164 Ann Clwyd: The level of female participation in the work force is low compared with comparable economies. How can that be improved? Do you see that as a major disadvantage?
Dr Toksoz: Yes. One of the reasons why Turkey has a low savings ratio is that the employment ratio of the labour force is very low-it has been under 50%, and hit 51% just recently. Within that, there are major issues with youth and female unemployment. In fact, female participation in the labour force has gone down over the past 10 years. One of the reasons for that is that, although women are fully part of the labour force in the rural areas, once they move to the city, they find it difficult to find attractive jobs that they can get to easily. Often, when they move to a city, they live in the outskirts, but the jobs are often in the centre-there is the going and coming and the conditions. There is also the issue of a cultural shift, which is difficult to make. I think there is a structural issue here, which will take time. I am sure that their daughters will work, but this first generation of women, who came from the countryside to the city, find it difficult to do so. Our party has a very conservative agenda in relation to the role of women. Although, legally, women’s role in the family has been brought up to European standards, the culture is more conservative, and they tend to reinforce that. Many secular women in Turkey are worried about some of these trends and are working to ensure that women can overcome these cultural constraints and have a more fulfilled life.
Q165 Mr Watts: You are giving a positive outline of the economy in Turkey, but you have touched on the issue of the low level of participation in the work force of women. The other issue that we have looked at in a bit of detail is population growth. Turkey will have to generate a lot of economic activity if it is going to find jobs for the number of people who are being born in Turkey at the moment. How much do you think there will be a drag on the Turkish economy as a result of the large population increases and the low participation of women in the workplace?
Dr Toksoz: These things are a drag at the moment, but once they start shifting in a positive direction, which I expect them to do-the Government have finally understood that they need some labour market reforms to encourage greater employment and so on-a virtuous circle begins to work. Productivity increases and savings ratios increase, like the whole thing that happened in Asia in the 1980s. Instead of being a demographic drag, it becomes a demographic gift. That is when really fast growth can happen. I think that, structurally, Turkey is in a really interesting position at the moment. Whether the Government have the intellectual, comprehensive reform orientation that they need to take that opportunity and do the deep reforms that are needed remains to be seen. They are certainly recognising them and talking about them, but I still have some reservations about whether they will be able to pursue them.
For example, one thing the Turks have been talking about for a long time is a comprehensive tax reform. Ten years ago they started the process of private pensions in Turkey, but the tax incentives are minimal. They could not do it at that time, because the budget was in such a tight spot, but they now have the capacity to provide proper tax incentives for the emerging middle class to begin to save and put money into pensions, which will also help develop the capital markets and so on. These things have got to be cracked. They were talking about this for a long time and Babacan has recently reiterated the need to do a comprehensive tax reform. I am watching to see whether they will get on with it.
Q166 Mr Ainsworth: The British Government have set a target for improving trade in simple volume by 2015. Does a simplistic target like that make sense, or should there be some more sophisticated approach?
Dr Toksoz: Well, Turkish imports will be worth $250 billion next year in my forecast. Exports will be worth around $170 billion or so by next year. They are growing very fast. The UK exports to Turkey, but is in the third tier of countries, as it were. There is the top tier, which is mainly countries from whom energy imports take place, such as Russia, and then there is the second tier, such as France and so on. Britain exports only about £3.5 billion or £4 billion, and that could easily double in the next five years, yes. I think that the potential is there.
Q167 Mr Ainsworth: Are there particular sectors that we ought to target for trade growth?
Dr Toksoz: The Government have already identified the sectors. I saw a report suggesting that they would be looking at ICT, education and transport, particularly rail, because of the rail network. So it is infrastructure-
Q168 Mr Ainsworth: We are going to export rail infrastructure to Turkey?
Dr Toksoz: You could set up some plants in Turkey that could produce. One of the things that the UK needs to be careful about is to see Turkey not just as an exporting destination but as an investment destination because, as I said, there is a big trade deficit. I think that the Government are looking much more at building their relationships with countries that are prepared to invest in Turkey. Also, I think that the Government are moving towards some kind of industrial policy; they are looking to produce more of the import content of some of the driving sectors of the Turkish economy, such as the automotive sector, within the country. The import content of some of Turkey’s exports, such as in the automotive sector, is very high. In fact, net automotive exports are very small in Turkey because so much is imported. The UK has got to get the balance right, between seeing Turkey as a place to which Burberry coats are exported, versus Rolls-Royce setting up a plant for engines and so on and so forth. I recently bumped into someone from Rolls-Royce, which is looking significantly at this sort of thing.
Q169 Mr Ainsworth: The British Government have enjoyed a very good relationship with Turkey over the past few years. Are there any commercial benefits for UK companies as a result of that close working relationship? Does that actually give British companies seeking to work with Turkey an advantage or an edge?
Dr Toksoz: It helps. Whether it gives a huge advantage, I do not know, because the Turkish economy is very private sector driven now; it is not a state-driven economy. It would probably help in state-driven sectors more but, otherwise, really, UK businessmen are on their own and they just have to find the right partners and the right people to go into that market with-that is an absolutely critical aspect of how one goes about working there. There is a lot of acquisition by European firms of small and medium-sized businesses taking place in Turkey, in everything from small publishing firms to pharmaceuticals, private hospitals and education. I would say that it is there, but you have to work at it, and it does not necessarily come easily.
Q170 Mr Watts: How much of an obstacle to bilateral economic and commercial relations is the visa system between Turkey and the UK?
Dr Toksoz: I would say that it is quite an important factor. The UK visa application process for Turks seems inordinately difficult-much more difficult than that of, say, France, which has a much more belligerent attitude towards Turkish membership of the EU and so on. It has been described to me as humiliating. You have to turn up with all your financial details, and so on. My father refuses to come to visit me here, because he refuses to go through the process. I think it is something that definitely must be looked at. The greater the traffic of people between the UK and Turkey, the better. That is the most important thing to bear in mind.
Q171 Mr Watts: What more could be done to improve the operations of the EU-Turkey Customs Union? What improvements could be made with that, do you believe?
Dr Toksoz: That is a really tough one, because no other EU member has joined the Customs Union before becoming an EU member. I think Turkey did it because they thought they were about to become one-maybe not immediately, but certainly in the next five to 10 years-so, if I were advising the Turkish Government I would say, "This is a quid pro quo: they have to offer more before you offer any more." I think that it is difficult to see significant advances in that.
One of the specific things I have heard about is that when trade legislation changes in the EU, Turks only hear about it third hand. Yet it affects them very directly. I think they have observer status on some of the Customs Union bodies, but they need to be given something more than observer status-certainly much more of a stake in how the trade policy of the EU operates generally. They need to know, simply, rather than be told, "Oh, this has been decided. Now you have to allow such-and-such tariff-free goods." So I think it would help if Turks felt that they were part of the decision-making process.
Q172 Sir John Stanley: The growing conventional wisdom, certainly among people I meet, is that the Turkish aspiration to achieve EU membership is becoming ever more difficult, and appears to be becoming a lost cause, particularly because of the view of France and Germany. What more do you think the British Government should be doing to reduce the hostility from France and Germany to Turkish membership ?
Dr Toksoz: I do not know that the UK Government can do all that much to change French and German opinion. I think the French have got to realise that they are paying a high price for their policy, because Turkey is about to make a decision on nuclear power and the Government have come out and said, "I’m not going to give it to Sarkozy," so France is out. They have to realise how much they are losing. I think perhaps it would help to explain to them the potential in Turkey, the prospects there, of which I am sure they are aware, but just hammering this, maybe, at much higher level would help.
I am also getting a little sceptical about the EU membership process. I am not a Eurosceptic, and I have always been in favour of Turkish membership of the EU, but I am seeing this membership process becoming a barrier in itself. It is almost like, if Turkey had never applied, bilateral relationships would have gone somewhat further, just because Turkey has grown and has become a bigger strategic and economic power in the region. I do not see much prospect of accession, with the Cyprus veto, and certainly not under this German Government. The SPD in Germany was much more in favour of Turkish membership, so perhaps particular political Governments on the continent have made it more difficult. But public opinion in some countries is wary of Turkey. I am not sure that that can change easily, especially in the context of the massive crisis that is affecting the eurozone.
Given that membership prospects have become ever more distant, the only thing that it is possible for the UK to do is to try to invite Turkey to as many EU bodies as possible. That is already somewhat there with the European foreign and security policy-Turkey should be brought into that and into more bodies relating to the Customs Union. Visa processes should be eased. You have to almost get around the membership process and just get on with things.
Q173 Sir John Stanley: As you know, there is some wariness, if not worse, among people in this country about Turkish membership of the EU. Do you think that the British Government should be doing more to sell to British people the case for Turkish accession to the EU?
Dr Toksoz: I do not think that would hurt. It is clear that the EU is changing rapidly. If the eurozone moves much more towards political integration and becoming a fiscal union, which some countries are clearly going to have to do, there will be several levels of membership-the core eurozone, maybe diluted; EU members; and then whatever.
Turks would like to have a date by which it is either going to happen or not. They do not want this open-ended thing to go on, and they are moving towards asking for a definite date. In 10 years or so-say by 2020 or 2023, which is the 100th anniversary of the Turkish Republic-the Turkey’s membership of the EU would become much more possible in this differentiated EU than it seemed 10 years ago, when the EU was a lot less differentiated.
Q174 Sir John Stanley: As we all recognise, the main negative perception about Turkey’s membership is the free movement of labour that would result. Do you think that there is any merit in the British Government, possibly with other European Governments-accepting that Turkish accession looks to be increasingly difficult and that there is perhaps an increasing risk that the Turkish Government themselves might give up on it? Should they find a way to bring Turkey into the EU on the basis that there would not be the same degree of free movement from Turkey into the EU countries as is enjoyed by other member states? That would not be a very satisfactory outcome, but it might be a better one than Turkey giving up all together.
Dr Toksoz: My understanding is that the Turkish Government are prepared to negotiate on that, so that should definitely be explored.
Chair: Dr Toksoz, thank you very much. I should have said at the beginning that, although you are Head of Country Risk at Standard Bank International, you are giving evidence in your own private capacity, and we accept that. Thank you very much indeed for coming along this morning. It is very much appreciated.