Rebutting claims of “neo-Ottomanism,” Turkey’s foreign policy makers have been working overtime to uphold the “zero problems with neighbors” policy, despite regional challenges.
After having strengthened relations with export partners in the Middle East following a drop in demand for Turkish products in Europe during the global economic crisis, the “zero problems with neighbors” policy was hailed as a new chapter in Turkish foreign policy. The beginning of the Arab Spring, however, saw internal unrest engulf countries in North Africa, a region that represented 7% of Turkey’s total exports, as well as 2.3% of its imports in 2010. Internal strife soon erupted in neighboring Syria, with which Turkey had recently taken steps to remove visa restrictions in order to facilitate cross-border trade. The Middle East at large represented 18.5% of Turkey’s exports in 2010 and 8% of its imports. The effects of the Arab Spring were soon felt, especially in Turkey’s external construction industry, which has worked extensively in the Middle East. Cement exports dropped 27%, with only a growing internal industry and increased exports to the Mediterranean region keeping the sector ticking over.
Despite challenges, “the current difficulties do not arise from Turkey’s lack of determination to resolve problems,” Ahmet Davutoğlu, Minister of Foreign Affairs, told TBY, reasserting his commitment to the “zero problems with neighbors” agenda.
To Turkey’s west, the country’s long and complex relationship with the EU also broke new ground in 2012, as a visa exemption process was formally launched and is expected to be finalized in two to three years. A culmination of much diplomatic wrangling, the move is seen as crucial, as the Greek Cypriot administration assumes the EU Presidency. “Turkey has achieved stable economic growth, dynamism, and a well-functioning democracy,” Egemen Bağış, Minister for EU Affairs and Chief Negotiator, told TBY, adding “European countries, on the other hand, are faced with a severe economic crisis and consequently they [will] essentially be the ones who would benefit from the increased opportunities of visits by Turkish citizens either for economic or social purposes.”
Although 18 out of 22 negotiation chapters remain to be opened, Minister Bağış maintains optimism. “We are fully committed to the accession process, and for us 2012 and 2013 will be the years of striking reforms,” he added. The country is also set to become the main transit route for Azerbaijani gas travelling from the Caspian Sea gas fields to Europe. The Nabucco West pipeline was selected by the Shah Deniz consortium as the preferred route, linking up with the planned Trans-Anatolian Pipeline (TANAP) through Turkey, thus allowing the EU to reduce its reliance on Russian gas exports.
Turkey’s function within NATO has developed in recent years, in part due to its role in hosting a radar base for the US missile defense shield system. Participation in the bloc’s naval blockade of Libya also strengthened Turkey’s image as a regional enforcer and model for post-Arab Spring countries. “Turkey stands obviously as a central pillar in this perspective,” Mohammed Moncef Marzouki, President of Tunisia, told TBY, adding “Tunisia can learn from Turkey, a country that was able to maintain a secular and republican state, whilst guaranteeing individual liberties, a multi-party system, and a stable model for economic development.”
İbrahim Kalın, Chief Advisor to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, remains bullish on ties with MENA region countries, telling TBY “there is always room for wider and deeper relations in all sectors of life… we cannot live in a stable environment where our neighbors are unstable, weak, or economically lagging behind.”
Post-Arab Spring North Africa, as well as sub-Saharan Africa, have also become focal points for Turkish business and diplomacy. “Turkish-African cooperation has gained momentum in recent years, and Africa today has become a strong component of Turkish foreign policy,” Minister Davutoğlu commented. A total of 19 new embassies have been opened since 2009, and trade volume has grown with the continent to reach $17.1 billion in 2011, “$7 billion of which was with sub-Saharan countries,” concluded Minister Davutoğlu. The number of Turkish embassies on the continent is now expected to reach 34 by the end of 2012.
While unrest in the Middle East continues, Turkey is not content to sit on its laurels, instead pushing ahead with a multi-faceted diplomatic agenda. Conflict resolution, as well as the establishment and reinforcement of trade ties, are thus going to be at the center of Turkish foreign relation matters in the coming year.
© The Business Year