Capital Ankara
Time Zone EET (GMT+2)
Country Code 90
Mobile Codes 532,533,542,505
ccTLD .tr
Currency Turkish Lira (1EUR = 1.95TL)
Land Area 783,562 sq km
Population 72.6 million
Language Turkish
Major Religion Islam

Turkish Foreign Policy and Ongoing EU Dialogue: Interview with Egemen Bağış, Turkish Minister for European Union Affairs and Chief Negotiator with the EU editor’s note: more than 50 years ago, Turkey started its EU accession project, with its first application to join the European Economic Community made in July 1959. Negotiations were delayed, however, because of several domestic political developments.

In 1999, the Helsinki Council concluded that Turkey would be accepted as a candidate country. Accession negotiations started in October 2005 but were subsequently suspended. Turkey showed more commitment to achieving the demanded reforms and the negotiations were resumed in January 2007. Even though some argue regarding the legitimacy of Turkey’s accession, some advantages of a strong EU partnership with Turkey could not be ignored. They refer mainly to its geo-strategic position, its economic prosperity and trade balance.

With key parliamentary elections coming up in just one week, is providing insight into the foreign policy goals and strategies of the Turkish government with the following interview. Speaking with with Brussels-based correspondent Maria-Antoaneta Neag, Mr. Egemen Bağış, Turkish Minister for European Union Affairs and Chief Negotiator with the EU, shares his experience and opinions regarding Turkey’s dialogue with the European bloc, as well as his country’s new foreign affairs policy and economic growth targets.


Turkey’s Dialogue with the EU

Maria Neag: What would be the assets deriving from Turkish membership in the European Union?

Egemen Bağış: It is a fact that Turkey is key to Europe’s future, through its dynamic economy, young population and wide role in global affairs. Today, Turkey is not a meek candidate waiting at the European Union’s door. On the contrary, it is a country which plays a key role in global affairs, in energy security and in the global economy.

According to Egemen Bağış Turkey is “determined to continue reforms on freedom of expression and press, which are not only crucial for our path towards European Union accession, but also for deepening democracy.”

The European Union’s main problem today is economic stagnation. Europeans need economic dynamism. Imagine the power of the European Union when the continent’s fastest growing economy and youngest working population joins it. Imagine the impact of the strong Turkish market and dynamic Turkish industries.

Turkey’s membership is not only related to economy. Turkey will be an important player in Europe’s security and defense policy. It will be an indispensable partner in its quest for energy and a major contribution to its cultural diversity.

MN: Ria Oomen-Ruijtenm a MEP a d the EPP rapporteur for Turkey, adopted by the European Parliament, expressed concerns regarding the transparent functioning of Turkish institutions. The rapporteur argues that the pre-trial detention periods are excessively long and there is a need for effective judicial guarantees for all suspects. Do these reports and criticism have any influence on the government’s decisions in this sense? Is Turkey working to achieve an independent and democratic judiciary system?

EB: Turkey is determined to carry out its reform process in order to achieve full compliance with the Copenhagen political criteria. We consider the judicial reforms as one of the key components of this process.

This is indeed reflected in the 2010 Constitutional amendments, which aimed to bolster the independence and impartiality of the judiciary. This reform package amended the independence of the judiciary, ensured Turkish citizens’ access to justice through introducing the right of individual application to the Constitutional Court and limited the jurisdiction of the military courts.

As a result, the Law on the Supreme Council of Judges and Prosecutors went into force on 18 December 2010. Civil Procedure Law was enacted on 2 February 2011. The Law on the Establishment of Constitutional Court and Trial Procedures followed on 3 April 2011, taking the Venice Commission’s recommendations into account.

Constitutional amendments also paved the way for the establishment of the Ombudsman institution which will increase the transparency and the accountability of the administration. Currently the Draft Law is on the agenda of the Parliament.

One of the significant developments is the enactment of new provisions of the Criminal Procedural Code (CPC) on 1 January 2011, which decrease maximum terms of arrest and give suspects in the criminal proceedings the constitutional and legal rights to object and appeal against decisions during every phase of the judgment process. Besides, decisions on arrest are subject to regular examination of a court in every month at the latest.

Further amendments, passed on 9 February 2011, also serve to speed up the appeals process and shorten trial periods.

The increase in the number of chambers of the Court of Cassation as well as its members ensures fast access to justice. These measures will ease the workload of the higher courts that will eventually decrease the pre-trial detention periods.

MN: What is Turkey going to do regarding the freedom of the press? The definition of terrorism in Turkey makes it hard for journalists to express their views without being held accountable in front of a court. Are there reforms under way as to clarify this legislative “trap”?

EB: Freedom of expression and press are safeguarded by the Constitution and other relevant legislation in Turkey. We are determined to continue reforms on freedom of expression and press, which are not only crucial for our path towards European Union accession, but also for deepening democracy.

We are determined to enhance the scope of freedom of expression through the means of participatory democracy. To ensure this, we have to reform not only legislation, but the mindset of all professionals working to safeguard these freedoms. This, naturally, takes time and political determination.

One of the first priorities of our Government when it came to power was to have a new and more liberal Press Law. Corresponding changes were made in the Constitution and relevant laws that enhanced freedom of expression and press freedom. In seven of the EU Harmonization Packages out of eight adopted between the years of 2002 and 2004, major legal improvements had been made concerning freedom of expression.

The Turkish Penal Code has been amended in July 2005, with a more liberal approach regarding freedom of expression and media. In order to enhance the awareness of judges and prosecutors, the Ministry of Justice issued a Circular reminding that investigations pertaining to the misuse of freedom of thought and expression shall be made in accordance with the jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights and other international human rights standards.

The “infamous” Article 301, which was used against many Turkish intellectuals has been revised. Ambiguous terms in the article have become clear and the Minister of Justice’s permission is brought as a condition to open an investigation. After the introduction of this amendment, there was a substantial decrease in the number of cases opened. In 2010, only 10 cases citing Article 301 were carried out, out of 403 applications.

MN: What is your opinion concerning the ongoing trials against Turkish writers (the most famous being Orhan Pamuk)? They exiled themselves in various European countries or the US for fear of imprisonment. How can Turkey regain its credibility regarding the freedom of expression?

EB: It would be very unfair to refer to one of Turkey’s greatest and best-selling writers, currently at the prestigious Colombia University, as in exile. Just because Milan Kundera has chosen to live in Paris does not mean that he is on exile either.

In the case of Mr. Pamuk, he is sufficiently anchored in Istanbul where he wants to create a museum.

The law that was invoked to bring a case against Mr. Pamuk no longer exists. He was prosecuted for insulting “Turkishness” under Article 301 of the Penal Code in its old version. The charges against Orhan Pamuk have been dropped when it was amended.

Although painful, the trial of Mr. Pamuk, Turkey’s best-selling author, taught us an important lesson on laws on freedom of expression, a lesson that we have taken to heart.

As I have mentioned, the Turkish Penal Code was further amended on 8 May 2008, which made it even more difficult to evoke Article 301.

MN: Women’s rights represent a sensitive subject in the Turkey-EU discussions. Even though Turkey has passed legislation protecting women against domestic violence and honor killings, it is said that the implementation of these laws is deficient. Do you agree with this criticism? What efforts are made in order to enhance women’s rights in Turkey? Do you think that we will soon be able to see more women active in politics?

EB: Following the footsteps of Kemal Atatürk, founder of the Turkish Republic, we are determined to strengthen and protect women’s rights. There have been remarkable legal developments in recent years to eliminate discrimination against women.

The most recent development is the constitutional amendment on Article 10, bringing positive discrimination for women.

Last year, the Women-Men Equality of Opportunities Commission in the Parliament was established to review the applications regarding the claims on breach of gender equality.

In order to ensure efficient combating of violence against women, a national action plan has been put in place. This National Action Plan identifies six main fields: legal arrangements, social awareness and mental transformation, advancement of women’s socio-economic status, protective services, curative and rehabilitation services and inter-sectoral cooperation. Furthermore, a protocol has been signed between the Ministry of Justice and the State Ministry responsible of Women and Family in order to raise awareness on fight against domestic violence and promote gender equality.

MN: Turkey is aiming to reach a visa liberalisation agreement with the EU. Some of the technical conditions regarding the visa waiver have already been fulfilled by Turkey (i.e. biometric passports). Certain efforts are ongoing within the framework of integrated borders management system. However, a problem remains regarding the readmission agreement, one of the conditions for lifting up the visas. Would signing such an agreement be so costly for Turkey? How could Turkey get the same facilitations as the Western Balkan countries did?

EB: Turks have difficulty to understand why, despite their long-standing relations with the European Union and their status as a negotiating candidate, they have to get visas to enter into EU countries, unlike other candidates and a good number of third countries.

Our demarches to the EU Member States and institutions for visa liberalization to Turkey were met by a request to fulfil the obligation of signing a Readmission Agreement. We were ready to do that, provided that the conclusion and initialling of the Readmission Agreement was in parallel to the initiation of the visa dialogue process between Turkey and the EU Commission towards a visa-free regime.

Negotiations that were carried out in the most constructive manner to conclude the Readmission Agreement with the EU resulted with a balanced and applicable text in May 2010, where Turkey displayed an attitude of good will despite the difficulties raised by some member states.

Yet, all this work was undermined by the Justice and Home Affairs Council, which failed to give a mandate to the Commission to start negotiations on a detailed action plan with Turkey and present the associated road map with the ultimate goal of visa-free travel for Turkish citizens. Turkey will only sign the Readmission Agreement if this is done.

Although disappointed, we will continue to work with the EU on the common challenge of irregular migration. In this framework, Turkey will implement effective regulations on integrated border management.

Turkey as a Global Player

MN: The forthcoming Polish Presidency declared that it will support Turkey in the visa question, hoping that the partnership with the EU will be thus strengthened. Can we translate this as being an EU concern that Turkey will slowly abandon its commitment towards the EU in favour of an axis shift?

EB: Turkey certainly welcomes the Polish Presidency’s inclusion of its intention to continue the accession process of Turkey in its programme. Poland is a country which has one of the highest levels of support to enlargement and we are confident that we will work closely with Warsaw on the visa question and other priority issues of the Presidency, from energy to defense, from agriculture to border security.

I do not think that any European Union member state needs to be concerned that Turkey is shifting its attention away from the European Union. In view of our multilateral policy, we have certainly many areas of focus, from the Middle East to Balkans, from Caucasus to North Africa. This, I believe, is actually one of our assets in our accession talks with the European Union and one of the benefits we will bring to the EU as a member state.

MN: What role will Turkey play when the revolutionary wave from the Middle East and Africa will come to an end?

EB: As the wave of uprisings sweep over Middle East and Northern Africa, Turkey’s democratization process coupled with its socio-economic transformation particularly in the last one decade, has been attracting extensive attention. Turkey emerged as a “source of inspiration” to the pro-change groups of the region.

Historical ties with the countries of the region dating back to the Ottoman era contribute to Turkey’s popularity. Yet, the source of inspiration is rather about what Turkey symbolizes today – that is, a strong regional actor with major socioeconomic transformation backed up with democratic development.

The firm anchoring of Turkey within international structures has definitely strengthened the internal dynamics of the country. The orientation of Turkey in such organizations acted as a strong stimulus of the consolidation of democracy. Particularly in the last decade, Turkey has taken bold steps on freedom of expression, freedom of the press, privacy of individual life, freedom of religion, freedom of association. The death penalty has been abolished. Civil-military relations have been normalized. The Turkey of today has become a “beacon of democracy” for those people who are trying to overthrow authoritarian regimes in their own homelands.

The uprisings have brought Turkey to the forefront of Arab minds – and, in the process, have underlined how important is the integration between Turkey and the EU. When a Moroccan taxi-driver in New York or an Egyptian waiter in London asks whether Turkey will someday be a member of the EU, there is now no surprise at the question. The people, media, and governments of the Middle East closely follow Turkey’s EU vocation.

The Arabs who are trying to overthrow authoritarian regimes are seeking freedom and change today, and democracy and prosperity tomorrow. Turkey’s accession to the EU would send a positive signal to them.

It would also be a good sign for the millions who for centuries have felt marginalised by Western structures. In the Muslim world, the double standards that Turkey faces in its accession bid feed these old sentiments, and they keep alive questions about whether the EU truly represents a set of values or merely defines itself narrowly as a ‘Christian Europe.’

Turkey’s Democratic Tests: Constitutional Reform and General Elections

MN: How will the new Turkish constitution be designed? What outcome is to be expected from this reform?

EB: It is too early to speculate on the new constitution before the elections but there are three certainties in that regard.

First, the fact that the overwhelming majority of Turkish citizens have voted in favor of the 2010 Constitutional Amendment Package demonstrated that not only the government but the people of Turkey support a new, more liberal and non-military constitution.

Secondly, the new constitution will be a “constitution of consensus” – unlike the 1982 Constitution which was the remnant of a military regime.

Thirdly, it will be a constitution befitting an EU member state. It will consolidate Turkey’s democratic reforms. It will ensure Turkish citizens to benefit fully from fundamental rights in a more democratic system by lifting the restrictions of the military regime. Thus, it will further strengthen the institutions guaranteeing democracy and the rule of law in Turkey.

MN: There will be general elections on June 12. What rhetoric should we expect from the parties involved?

EB: Politics, particularly in electoral periods, are volatile. Especially in a great country like Turkey, you have big issues, big promises and sometimes big divergences of view between competing parties.

I am happy to say that Turkey’s accession to the European Union is not one of those points of divergence. I am glad that the EU issue is not being used as a propaganda tool in the elections. It is a positive sign that issues about the EU are not being brought into the election discourses of opposition parties. This is a sharp contrast to some European Union member states where Turkey is used as some sort of scapegoat or “tete de Turc” in their election campaigns.

The priority of the parties running for the elections is to serve the citizens and the social good. A sound rhetoric shares the vision for the future of Turkey by responding to these social and economic needs in the context of international economic circumstances.

My own party envisions the year 2023 as the target date for a prosperous, developed and powerful Turkey. We believe that all of our citizens, every single one of them, deserves the best and we have written our programme accordingly.

Assessing Turkey’s Economic Growth

MN: The 2010 figures revealed an unexpected 8.9% growth rate of the Turkish economy. Moreover, the trend is expected to continue in 2011 and 2012, with rates between 4.5% and 5.5%. What are “the engines” laying behind this evolution?

EB: When you look at it from a pure economic point of view, strong domestic demand, strong investment growth, rising industrial output, improved foreign trade and foreign direct investments all contribute to Turkey’s growth, which is higher than the EU expectations.

We think that Turkey’s position as the fastest growing economy in Europe is sustainable in the coming years.

From a wider perspective, I think our macroeconomic stability and predictability is, ironically, the result of the bitter lessons of a decade ago, when Turkey had its worst financial and economic crisis in its modern history. The Turkish economy has been involved in a structural transformation process afterwards. From then on, stability became the main focus of our macroeconomic policies with the support of significant structural reforms.

The role of the EU accession period is also significant. EU membership perspective have played an anchor role for stability and sustained economic growth during this transformation process. Our government has preserved price stability with the help of sound economic policies as well as fiscal discipline. As a result of this, any negative effects of the global financial and economic crisis on our economy have been limited in terms of both duration and scale and we have been able to recover rapidly with a remarkable growth rate in 2010.

In the light of impressive growth performance of Turkish economy over the last decade with the exception of 2009, we take the economic success in 2010 as a continuation of this trend rather than as a surprise.

MN: You mentioned in a speech held in the European Parliament on the occasion of the event “The Turkish children’s perception on the EU and the Turkish accession perspective”, organised by the Friends of Turkey (on 4th of May), that Turkey’s economic goal is to become the 20th economic world power by 2023, which will be the date celebrating 100 years since the formation of the Turkish modern state. What are the policies Turkey will employ in order to achieve such an ambitious target?

EB: Turkey, as a dynamic emerging economy, is determined to catch up with the bigger actors of the global playground. In order to reach our target, Turkey will continue to follow sound macroeconomic policies, fiscal discipline and structural reforms in order to further improve stability and growth.

To this end, we have already launched our development strategies for the improvement of the physical infrastructure and research & development to boost the economic activities. These strategies refer also to the priorities like environment, energy, transport, innovation, education, health and SMEs.

With the help of these extensive structural reforms and strategies, Turkey will be able to unlock its untapped capacity and improve its potential. By 2023, Turkey will reach its targets like income per capita worth 25,000 USD, exports volume amounting 500 billion USD, and being one of the top 5 agricultural powers of the world. And this will bring Turkey up to the league of the world’s top 10 economies.

Last but Not Least…

MN: Turkey is a Eurasian country whose territory spreads across different regions, with different historical and cultural backgrounds. One might stress that people from Anatolia, for example, don’t have the same EU aspirations as do Istanbul inhabitants. Is there a general support for Turkey’s accession to the EU? What do people expect from the EU?

EB: Turkey is a country where continents and cultures meet – and whose own heritage is deeply entwined with that of the European Union. The “Sick Man of Europe” of the 19th century is now the “Robust Man” of Europe.

Turkish people from multicultural metropolises to Anatolian cities want to be a part of the European Union if that means better living standards, more democratic rights, and prosperity.

However, this desire is dimmed by what they perceive as the unfair attitude of the European Union. From the perspective of the Turkish public, the question is a “trust” issue – “Can we trust the European Union to treat our candidacy fairly and make a fair decision when we have met the criteria?” The European Union has to work with us, Turkey’s government and its people, to readdress its somewhat battered image and credibility in the eyes of Turks.

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