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The Sick Man Bites Back

Jack_strawJack Straw MP discusses the reach of Turkish political influence in the modern world

“Turkey seems to be falling to pieces, the fall will be a great misfortune. . . We have a sick man on our hands.”

Tsar Nicolas I of Russia, 1853, in Harold Temperley, England and the Near East (Longmans, Greens and Co., 1936)

Almost 160 years since Tsar Nicholas’ famous remarks, the picture of Turkey could hardly be more different. Turkey is now one of the fastest growing economies in the world and the fastest growing in Europe, enjoying growth rates of 8.5 per cent last year and 9 per cent in 2010. Indeed, such is Turkey’s economic renaissance that it is set to become a top 10 global economy by 2050. Turkey is also a key NATO member with the largest armed forces after the US. It is the dominant actor in its region and plays an increasingly energetic and positive role in its relationships far beyond its own neighbourhood.

I am pleased to say the UK ranks high, if not one of the highest, among the network of states with which Turkey shares close alliances. After the recent signing of a Strategic Partnership with the UK, Prime Minister Erdogan said that in his view, ‘this is the golden age of Turkey-United Kingdom relations.’ From our side we totally agree. Our Foreign Secretary, William Hague has, for instance, written that our alliance is, ‘the new special relationship’ while UK Prime Minister David Cameron has stated that ‘Turkey is vital for our economy, vital for our security and vital for our politics and our diplomacy.’ As the Co-Chair of the Tatlidil British-Turkish Forum, which is meeting for its latest conference in Istanbul this month, I am proud to be able to play even a small part in helping not just to maintain but to actively enhance these diplomatic exchanges.

These high-level political links are held together by multifaceted bonds between our countries at every level. 72,000 Turkish-born people and 40,000 Turkish nationals have made their home in the UK. In Turkey there are over 10,000 British residents and over 30,000 property-owners. Our citizens made 2.8 million visits to Turkey in 2010, coming third highest among all international visitors.

Economically, the UK is year by year second or third as a destination for Turkish exports. In the UK, 80 per cent of white goods sold here have originated in Turkey. Seeking to build still further on these ties in the coming years, Prime Minister Cameron has set a target of doubling UK-Turkey trade by 2015. The total for 2011, £9.1 billion, already represented an increase of 40 per cent from that of two years previously.

While the UK wishes to continue to strengthen our bilateral alliance, the EU, to my great regret, continues to hold Turkish accession aspirations at arm’s length. Of the 35 chapters of negotiation for EU membership, 18 have been frozen (eight by the EU generally and 10 by France and Cyprus). While the situation in Cyprus remains a key stumbling block, a strategic political shift at the highest level in Berlin and Paris remains the key to breaking the present deadlock.

I enjoyed considerable support back in 2005 from both France and Germany when I was able to open the accession process for Turkey, but it took strong leadership and vision from Chancellor Schroeder and President Chirac to get to that point. The former President Nicolas Sarkozy, by contrast, was a
vehement opponent of Turkish membership, stating that ‘Turkey has no place inside the EU.’ The election earlier this year of President Hollande – less overtly hostile to Turkish membership than his predecessor – may therefore offer an opportunity to refresh the negotiation process and get it moving in the right direction. I know the Labour Party and the British Government will do all that we can to assist in this regard. As Foreign Secretary Hague said last year, ‘we want to send a message of full support for energetic Turkish negotiations with the EU.’ Indeed, there are many reasons to suggest that the EU should in fact be knocking on Turkey’s door and not vice versa.

Turkey’s dynamic economic growth stands in stark contrast to the stagnation that persists across much of Europe. Its population projections, with Turkey’s youthful population expected to become the overall largest in Europe by 2020, will make envious reading for European politicians who are already dealing with the effects of rapidly-ageing populations.

Crucially, Turkey also enjoys diplomatic reach into areas where the EU’s influence is, and simply must be, much less powerful. While Turkey still has close economic ties with Europe, with 40 per cent of its exports going to the EU, it is increasingly embracing and invigorating its ties with its Middle Eastern and North African partners. Evidence of this expanding influence in the Arab world can be seen, for instance, in the fact that between 2001 and 2008 the value of Turkey’s exports to the Middle East and North Africa grew seven-fold to US$31 billion. The role that Turkey played during the Libya crisis and the active part it continues to play in bringing pressure to bear on the Assad regime in Syria are testaments to a growing confidence in its own status and influence. With this level of access to such strategically vital areas of the world it is no wonder that William Hague reportedly speaks more often on the telephone to Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu than he does to Hilary Clinton.

It is for all the reasons I set out above, not least the remarkable diplomatic and economic expansion I have witnessed over the last decade, that I called the chapter about Turkey in my recently published memoir: ‘The Sick Man Bites Back.’


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