On January 31, 2012, the Brookings Doha Center hosted a special policy discussion with H.E. Egemen Bağış, Turkish minister for European Union affairs and chief negotiator, as part of the Center’s Distinguished Lecture Series. Bağış’s address focused on Turkey’s changing role in the international scene, in particular its ongoing EU bid and response to political changes in the Middle East. The event, which included a question and answer session, was moderated by Ibrahim Sharqieh, deputy director of the Brookings Doha Center, and attended by members of Qatar’s academic, business, diplomatic and media communities.
Minister Bağış opened his remarks by speaking about Turkey’s strong ties with Qatar. Having met with H.H. Emir Shaikh Hamad bin Khalfa al-Thani the morning of the event, Bağış said Qatari-Turkish relations have prospered over the past several years, with trade volume at over $1 billion and close personal ties between the countries’ leaders. Furthermore, he added, both Qatar and Turkey are implementing major reforms, and Bağış referred to Qatar as “a source of inspiration, especially in terms of its stability.”
Bağış then turned his attention to the responsibility of his ministry, which he considers “the reform kitchen of Turkey,” because it ensures that EU-mandated reforms are implemented in Turkey. The Turkish-EU relationship dates back to 1959 with Turkey’s first application to the European Economic Zone. A great deal has changed in Turkey in the past 52 years, Bağış stated, with per capita income rising from $300 to $11,000 and with increasingly transparent governance in Turkey. EU-led reforms have had largely been responsible for these changes, Bağış said. While the outcome of the EU application is important, the process has already been successful in greatly improving living standards and governance in Turkey. Unfortunately, Bağış said, some EU members are trying to block Turkish membership in an attempt to gain support from segments of their local constituencies.
Bağış went on to say that the EU’s 27 member states have become more democratic and transparent through EU-mandated reforms. This does not mean, however, that these countries are perfect, as demonstrated by the current Eurozone crisis. Bağış explained that such problems have arisen largely because not all of the countries fall in line with the EU criteria initially required for membership. Bağış asserted that lax enforcement of EU rules is responsible for such problems, and has become commonplace due to the Union’s requirement that decisions must be approved unanimously.
Just as Turkey has benefitted from its implementation of required EU reforms, Europe also stands to gain from Turkish membership. Indeed, the continent needs new markets, and Turkey has become the fastest growing economy in Europe, with GDP growth of over 8 percent for more than five years. It is also set to remain the fastest growing European economy until 2020, according to the OECD. Furthermore, Europe is aging, while Turkey is a young country – the median age in Turkey is 29, almost half that of Germany. In addition, Europe is facing an energy crisis with which Turkey can assist, as it has considerable access to energy resources to its East. With the largest and strongest military in Europe, Turkey is also a source of stability in the region. Bağış described his country as “the most Eastern power of West and most Western power of East.” To be a dependable bridge between the continents and societies, he said, Turkey is strengthening its East, South, North, and Western alliances simultaneously.
Following Bağış’s presentation, the question and answer session covered a range of issues, including Turkey’s growing relations with the East, the issue of Cyprus, and prospects for Turkey succeeding in its EU bid. Bağış asserted that Turkey attaining EU membership is “a question not of if, but when” and that ultimately the Turkish people will have to decide through a referendum whether they want EU membership. Bağış maintained, however, that “the process itself is much more important than the end result,” stating that if Turkey has the same living standards and transparency as EU member states, the outcome of its application is not hugely important. On the issue of Turkey being a predominantly Muslim state, Bağış rejected the notion that the EU is “a Christian club,” stating that the fact that Turkey is Muslim is an advantage, and will help Europe address issues of integration that it already faces. Indeed, 10 percent of Europe will be Muslim by 2025. Having a moderate Muslim power in the EU will help ensure that Muslim youth in the EU hear messages of peace and coexistence, rather than those encouraging violent confrontation, Bağış said.
In response to a question about the Armenian genocide as an obstacle to EU membership, Bağış said what happened to the Armenian population in 1915 cannot be classified as genocide, and said it was his job as a politician to concentrate on the future, not the past. As for French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s efforts to criminalize denial of the Armenian genocide in France, Bağış said that this amounts to censorship and therefore runs counter to the ideals enshrined in the French constitution. He also charged that Sarkozy is using the Armenian issue as a means of garnering support from the far-right going into elections.
Another audience member claimed that the Turkish role in the Palestinian issue has diminished in the past few years. Bağış responded that “Turkey is as determined as ever to solve the Palestinian issue because we see it as the mother of all problems in the Middle East.” He said that Turkey has tried to work with the Israelis, pointing to its role as a mediator in Israeli talks with Pakistan and Syria. Following the killing of nine Turkish citizens aboard the MV Mavi Marmara in 2010, Turkey set three conditions that must be met before the normalization of relations with Israel: an apology for the deaths, aid to the families of those killed, and an end to the “illogical and illegal” embargo of Gaza. Until then, he said, Turkey cannot help Israel make a deal with the Palestinians.