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Turkey 2011 | DIPLOMACY | INTERVIEW

TBY talks to Egemen Bağış, Minister of EU Affairs and Chief Negotiator, on Turkey's EU accession process, and the effect it could have on the country's burgeoning economy.

Egemen Bağış
BIOGRAPHY
In the 1990s Egemen Bağış was the President of the Federation of Turkish-American Associations in New York. He has also served as an Advisory Board member of Turkish Citizens Abroad. He was first elected to Parliament in 2002 as a Deputy from Istanbul. He was appointed as Minister of EU Affairs in January 2009, and has been working on Turkey’s membership negotiations since then.

What is your evaluation of the EU's Turkey 2010 Progress Report?

The 2010 Turkey Progress Report is the most positive and encouraging one among the 13 reports released by the Union so far. Turkey has taken remarkable steps since 1998 when the EU's first Progress Report was released. Turkey now has a different and unique position thanks to it being the fastest growing economy in Europe, its rapidly improving democratic standards, and its active foreign policy. Turkey's efforts for regional peace and stability, its relations with EU-member states—and particularly its ties with Greece—as well as the Turkish economy's flexibility against the global crisis were some of the issues highlighted in the Progress Report.

It was also a positive development that the European Commission had confirmed Turkey's progress in all chapters. Despite the chapters blocked due to political reasons, it is of great importance that the report pointed to Turkey's progress in all chapters. This is a confirmation of our determination on our path to the EU.

I do not claim that Turkey is perfect in every aspect. The country still has major issues to solve. However, when we compare the current situation with the past, we can say that Turkey is in a much better place. Tomorrow, it will be in a much greater position.

“Turkey now has a different and unique position thanks to it being the fastest growing economy in Europe."

Following the successful referendum on constitutional change, are we going to see a reinvigorated push in EU-related reforms?

The referendum has really shown the extent to which the Turkish people believe in a demanding kind of democracy, in human rights, and the market economy. By voting “yes" in the referendum on a new Constitution, the Turkish public gave a strong mandate for the Europeanization project, wiping away the remnants of the military constitution, leading to a fully fledged democracy and EU membership. Having taken this step, we are going to continue with reforms, and we will take all the necessary first steps so that Turkey becomes a country that answers to European criteria, so that the people of Turkey benefit from a higher standard of living.

We are now working very hard to adopt harmonization laws in line with the 2010 constitutional amendments. However, the most important step will be a new constitution after the June 2011 elections.

Are you concerned that Turkey's strengthening relations with non-EU neighboring countries will be construed as a relinquishing of EU accession aspirations?

Just find Turkey's position on the world map. You will see that Turkey is not where East and West are divided, but where East and West come together, and this is what makes Turkey so unique. This would be a great opportunity for the EU to prove itself as a peace project. Turkey's membership would be the antithesis of the clash of civilizations and would prevent new polarizations in the world. We act as an intercultural bridge. Can there be a bridge with only one sound leg? We want to be a bridge that is strong enough to trust. We always attached importance to the Western leg of this bridge, but somewhat neglected the Eastern leg in the past. During the rule of the AK Party, based on the fact that this bridge can be strong only if both legs are strong, we began EU negotiations and also assumed the position of the secretariat general in the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC). Meanwhile, we became the co-chair of the project for the Alliance of Civilizations.

In fact, strengthening relations with the concerned countries means more dialogue and more cooperation, not only for Turkey, but for the whole of Europe as well. Turkey's historical ties with those countries provide a great opportunity for the EU. As Turkey gets closer to the EU in the next 15 years, it will become a more prominent country in the Islamic world. As Turkey gets closer to the Islamic world, it will become a more important country for Europe. As we get closer to one side, our relations with the other side do not get weaker. On the contrary, relations with one side make relations with the other side stronger. Such relations are complementary to each other. Turkey would really be a bridge. Just as 1.5 billion Muslims watch Turkey's EU process closely, 500 million Europeans will begin observing Turkey's relations with the Islamic world.

Turkey's peaceful and conciliatory activities all over the world weren't in contradiction with the foreign policies of the EU. Actually, Western countries establish all kinds of relationships with countries in the Middle East, but as for the Turkey, they say: “Does its axis lapse?" The Turkish nation has not changed its course for 1,000 years. Nobody intends to nor has the strength to change this course.

What economic opportunities does Turkey offer the European Union?

Turkey and the European Union need each other, but Turkey's need for the Union continues to decrease while the Union's need for Turkey grows bigger with each passing day. We adopted a new slogan: “Hold on tight, Europe. Turkey is coming to your rescue!"

There is an economic crisis in Europe, but Turkey entered a gradual recovery period relatively quickly. It is Europe's sixth largest economy, with an 11% growth rate. Turkey's accession will increase the size of the European internal market as well as the competitiveness of the EU in the global economy, if you consider its dynamic 70+ million population and the 1.5 billion consumers around Turkey. In other words, Turkey will make the EU cake bigger. Turkey hosted the leaders of 150 countries in spring 2011 for a summit of less-developed countries. And it will assume the term presidency of the summit for the next 10 years. As well, Turkey is the secretary-general of the OIC as well as the co-chair of the Alliance of Civilizations. Turkey is also one of the reputable countries among the G-20's member states. The EU cannot ignore such an active country.

What would EU accession mean for Turkish business leaders?

EU countries have the biggest share in Turkey's exports. Our exports to Europe are on the rise in terms of size. Although its total share is declining, the EU's share in total exports from Turkey is 46.3%. Actually, the Customs Union was a turning point for Turkish investors. Turkish business people gained great access and opportunities in the European market. They had a broader vision. Starting the negotiations with the EU was another turning point as they reach the capacity to compete and cooperate with their European counterparts. Turkey also quadrupled its FDI after the negotiations started because it means more democracy, more stability, and more predictability. We attract more foreign investors and this has created a new synergy between Turkish and foreign business people.

What do you believe Turkish leaders could bring to decision making and reform processes within the European Union, and how would this be mutually beneficial?

There is no doubt that Turkey becoming a full member of the European Union, and sharing European values, rules and principles, has a lot to contribute to the soft power of the EU. With the second largest army in NATO and its strategic location, Turkey would support EU goals not only in terms of soft power but also in terms of peacekeeping capability and global reach.

Have there been any negotiations aimed at relaxing visa restrictions for Turkish citizens in the European Union?

It is an unacceptable fact to see Turkish citizens waiting in front of the consulates and embassies of EU member states when we have had intense relations for 52 years. Our people are sick of waiting in lines outside EU embassies, having to produce millions of papers only to be turned down frequently for no good reason. Citizens of countries that have not yet started negotiations with the EU like Serbia, Montenegro, and Macedonia enter European countries without visas. Although Turkey has been in the EU process since 1959, it makes 60% of its foreign trade with Europe, and is a member of all institutions of Europe, it has to fulfill visa requirements. There is insincerity here. We are face to face with the double standards of Europeans. Imagine a Turkish company doing business with Europe involving millions of euros, but the owner of the company still faces difficulties getting a visa? That is obviously negative discrimination. Turkey is now a negotiating country. This should be made a priority as it symbolizes that Europe is open to Turkey. Turkey now has biometric passports, is near to completing a readmission agreement, and is getting closer by the day to reaching EU requirements for a visa-free regime.

What do you hope to see in the way of visa reform?

There are fears in Turkey against the European Union and fears against Turkey in the EU. And what is the real underlining reason for these fears? We do not know one another enough. People usually fear countries they do not know enough about. Once you get to know them, you find out their strengths and weaknesses, and then you realize there is nothing to be afraid of. The abolition of visas will be the most important step to ease those fears. The argument that Turkey is just too big and too poor simply holds no weight anymore. Turkey's economy is far better than many EU members. If anything, Turkey could be importing labor from EU member states in the not too distant future.

How important has the subject of energy been during European Union accession negotiations, and can Turkey help meet Europe's energy needs?

Turkey has been a bridge and a hub for centuries. We are the Eastern tip of the West, and the Western tip of the East. Turkey has been a bridge between Islam and Christianity, between civilizations and cultures, and also between energy resources and energy consumers. Over 70% of the crude oil and natural gas reserves that the EU needs are in the areas surrounding Turkey. Turkey, in this picture, will join the EU not to become a burden but to take some of the burden off the EU and contribute to a Union of leadership vision, diversity, and unity.

Turkey's cooperation is a must for Europe to resolve its energy crisis and Turkey is willing to become a part of the solution. But while Turkey is so essential and so accommodating to Europe on this issue, not being able to open the chapter on energy in our negotiations with the EU is a shame. The issue of Cyprus, a beautiful sunbathed island in the Mediterranean without any energy problems of its own, is hijacking the energy interests of 500 million Europeans. This is not fair.

What would you like European business leaders and politicians to know about the opportunities an EU-integrated Turkey can offer?

I strongly believe that Turkey's accession to the EU will provide a series of opportunities for businesses and consumers. The business sector will gain access to the dynamism of the Turkish economy, enhanced competition, and an expanded market. Hold on tight European investors, your Turkish friends are coming to cooperate with you!