30th Mar 2023

Ankara's closer ties with Muslim countries 'EU compatible'

  • National guard in Ankara: Istanbul is emphasising the multiple dimensions of its foreign policy (Photo: EUobserver)

EU accession remains Turkey's main priority after a cabinet reshuffle, with the country's new policy of forging stronger ties with Muslim neighbours seen as EU compatible despite concerns from the secularist oppposition.

"In my term the first priority of our foreign policy will continue to be the EU," Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu told a group of EU journalists in Ankara on Friday.

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Only ten days in office, after a cabinet reshuffle which saw his predecessor, Ali Babacan, take over the position of minister of economy, he dwelled on the "multidimensional" identity of Turkey - European but majority Muslim, neighbouring the Middle East, the Caucasus, the Mediterranean and the Black Sea - and said no Turkish leader could ignore any of these parts.

In the eyes of the opposition, this shift marks a departure from the traditional secularist view that Turkey is a different culture, but part of the same Western civilisation as Europe. Common military exercises with Syria, for instance, have risen concerns in Israel, a long-time ally of Ankara.

Mr Davutoglu, an influential conservative scholar and former advisor to the premier, was instrumental in Ankara's strong opposition in approving Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen as future Nato secretary-general. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoga cited concerns in the Muslim world over the way the Danish politician managed the cartoon crisis, but was eventually convinced by US President Barack Obama.

"Our purpose was not to defend the Muslim world against Nato, but trying to find out a way to prevent any misperception and damage to the image of Nato. We thought only as a Nato member," he explained, stressing that Ankara would have behaved in the same way if the concerns came from the Chinese or Africans.

In a bid to explain the nuances of the new foreign policy, Mr Davutoglu said his country could not deny its multiple identity. "In Europe, I am looking for the future of Europe, I am speaking as a European. But if we are members of the Organisation of Islamic Conference, in this organisation of course we will be speaking as a member, for the future of the Muslim world," Mr Davutoglu said.

Asked about the relations with Iran, Mr Davutoglu emphasised that there was "mutual respect", especially since the two countries had not changed their border since 1639. "We know each other, we respect each other. Our policy regarding nuclear issues is clear – nobody can defend nuclear weapons," he said, while also defending Tehran's right to peaceful nuclear energy projects.

Another foreign policy shift that was seen with concern in Israeli circles and by the opposition was the government's approach towards Hamas.

"Can you envisage peace without Hamas? Like it or not, they are part of the solution. If we really want a two-state solution, we must allow Hamas to sit at the table," Turkey's chief EU negotiator Egemen Bagis told journalists at a separate briefing.

EU failure fuels Muslim policy

The ruling AK Party had a "half-hearted European policy" and a preference for Muslim countries because "EU is no successful story in the eyes of the public," opposition leader Onur Oymen from the secularist Republican People's Party (CHP) party said.

Created by the founding father of Turkey's strong separation between mosque and state – military leader Kemal Ataturk – the CHP suffered a crushing defeat in the 2007 elections that saw the AKP consolidate its power at 46.6 percent of the votes.

The EU was wrongly backing the "so-called" reforms of the AK Party, he said, restricting the army's role and allowing Islamic symbols – such as the head scarf – re-enter public life. The image of the army and its defenders has been seriously shaken in the past year with the emergence of a far-reaching trial case dubbed "Ergenekon."

Over a hundred people, including former generals, university professors, politicians and journalists have been detained or questioned since July 2008 in connection to this alleged clandestine, ultra-nationalist paramilitary organisation aimed at toppling the AKP government and assassinating prominent figures.

Allegedly, Ergenekon was the successor or had some members who were initially part of the CIA-backed Counter-Guerilla, the covert organisation established at the beginning of the Cold War to oppose communism and later on fight the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK).

The case was started at a time when the Constitutional Court was about to give its verdict on whether the AKP was breaching the separation of mosque and state, which would have dissolved the party and thrown most of its leaders, including premier Recep Tayyip Erdogan and President Abdullah Gul, to jail.

The court in the end did not deem the AKP anti-constitutional, but issued a strong warning and said the AKP was undertaking "anti-secular activities."

Slow negotiations

Despite EU negotiations in the slow lane and being kicked around in "domestic politics football", Turkish citizens seemed to be adopting the "EU agenda", the head of EU commission's delegation to Ankara, Marc Pierini, said.

"The aquis communautaire is about better air, safer food, equal rights. There is a very strong political awareness of the citizens, even in villages, they are very educated politically," he said, while noting that the drive towards accession was less strong.

In the five years since opening negotiations, Ankara and Brussels have finalised only one accession chapter of a total of 35, while eight remain blocked due to the ongoing dispute about Northern Cyprus. Additionally, Cyprus is now blocking the opening of the energy chapter, the only country to do so in the EU's Council of Ministers - representing the member states.

Ankara does not recognise EU member state Cyprus, who for its part has failed to reconcile with the northern part of the island, rejecting a UN-brokered deal that the Northern Cypriots had approved in a referendum.

Northern Cyprus is not part of the EU and only recognised by Turkey, which invaded this part of the island in 1973 in order to prevent its annexation to Greece.

Turkey refuses to open its airports and ports to Greek Cypriot traffic until the issue is solved.

Correction: the quotation of ambassador Marc Pierini should read "the EU agenda is now the Turkish citizen's agenda."

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