zaterdag 8 januari 2011

Why Turkey Is Still European at Heart

(article by guest author Fintan Hastings)

Far from drifting closer toward Islamism, Turkey remains very Europe oriented. Its policy of “Zero Problems with Neighbors” means open engagement with surrounding countries of all religions. The EU needs to harness these benefits for greater energy and regional cooperation as Brussels and Ankara share the same long-term security goals.

There has been much discussion and speculation in recent years about the perceived ‘drift’ in Turkish foreign policy away from Europe and towards radical Islam. It has been suggested for instance, that Turkey’s closer relations of late with Iran and its changing domestic political situation at home are evidence of this ‘drift’ away from Europe and the west and towards a new Islamic alliance in the Middle East.

Since coming to office in 2003, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government under the leadership of Prime Minister Recep Tayip Erdogan has pursued a markedly different foreign policy from that of its predecessors. However, the suggestion that this new policy is part of an attempt by Turkey to establish a ‘Neo-Ottoman’ alliance in the Middle East and Asia Minor can be disproven with a careful examination of the facts as they stand.

Foreign Minister Ahmed Davutoğlu has defined Turkey’s new foreign policy as “Zero Problems with Neighbors”. Put simply, this approach has involved positive engagement with all of Turkey’s immediate neighbors in its region with a view to establishing meaningful dialogue, thereby reducing the potential for conflict. It ought to be pointed out here that this policy has been directed not only at Iran, a predominantly Muslim nation, but also at Russia, Armenia and Greece, all of which are overwhelmingly Christian.

Indeed, the main beneficiaries of this new policy have been Turkey’s above mentioned predominantly Christian neighbors. The bi-lateral relationship between Turkey and its old rival Greece has seen a dramatic improvement since the arrival of the AKP administration, to the extent that Greece now fully supports Turkey’s bid for EU membership. This would have been inconceivable only ten years ago. Similarly on the other side of the Black Sea, the Turkish-Russian relationship is stronger than ever before, with Turkey likely to play host in the coming years to a major Russian gas pipeline known as ‘Blue Stream II’. Foreign Minister Davutoğlu sees Turkey’s challenge for the twenty-first century as recognizing the fact that it lies at the intersection of numerous geopolitical regions (Europe, Middle East and Eurasia) as opposed merely to being an appendix of Europe.

Turkey’s thriving relationship with Israel further disproves the theory of the ‘drift’ towards radical Islam. Turkey remains the only nation in the world with a predominantly Muslim population to accord full diplomatic recognition to the State of Israel. This remains the case despite the ‘Flotilla Incident’ in June 2010 which caused considerable strain to the bi-lateral relationship between these two nations.

According to the EU Commission’s Strategy for Sustainable and Secure Energy, within 20-30 years Europe will be dependent upon imports for 70% of its gas requirements, most of which will originate in Russia. Dependency upon a single supplier creates obvious security concerns for Europe. The potential sources of gas in the Caspian region could however alleviate this problem. Once again, Turkey will be critical in this regard. Turkey has agreed to play host to the proposed ‘Nabucco’ gas pipeline which would carry gas from Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan all the way to Austria right in the heart of Europe. The political significance of this project has not been lost on the EU, with the current Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso predicting "a new age in relations between Turkey and the European Union".

The challenge for the European Union and for NATO in the immediate future will be to recognize Turkey’s growing geopolitical significance and to harness the benefits this could offer Europe in critical areas such as energy and regional security. EU leaders will also need to have the foresight to work now to secure the Union’s long term regional security interests by cultivating and maintaining strong relationships with those nations that are best placed to guarantee those interests.

The principal challenge for both the European Union and Turkey remains to recognize that despite political, cultural and religious differences, ultimately their long-term security interests lie together.

Fintan Hastings holds a BA (Hons) in Heritage Studies from the Galway Mayo Institute of Technology (Ireland) and an MA in International Relations from University College Cork (Ireland), Specialising in European Military and Regional Security and Turkey. More information can be found at his website

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