Turkish business leader: Cyprus should be one business community

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Turkey would like to do business with the southern part of Cyprus – EU member the Republic of Cyprus – and both sides of the divided island should take steps towards the other, Rifat Hisarc?kl?o?lu, president of the Turkish Union of Chambers and Commodity Exchanges, told EURACTIV in an exclusive interview.

Rifat Hisarc?kl?o?lu is president of the Turkish Union of Chambers and Commodity Exchanges (TOBB), which represents 1.3 million companies. He is also deputy chairman of Eurochambres, the Association of European Chambers of Commerce.

He was speaking to EURACTIV’s Georgi Gotev.

The economic figures coming from Turkey are quite surprising. Turkey's GDP this year rose by more than 10% over the last twelve months, and 1.5 million new jobs were created between June 2009 and June 2010. How did Turkey manage to stay out of the economic crisis?

Turkey began its economic reforms in 2001, when it faced the biggest crisis in its history, which was of course a financial one. After this, a great deal of caution was taken on board as a lesson from it – we had lost around $40 billion.

So we had already taken measures to strengthen our economy whilst more developed countries hadn't. During the crisis, Turkey was the only developed country not to assist its banks at all. The business community was heavily affected, however, as world trade decreased.

You mean that your country put in place banking supervision long ago, which saved you from the problems faced by most of the Western world?

Exactly. Actually, what the West is facing now is what we had faced in 2001.

Does Turkey have a strategy for stronger regional penetration by its businesses?

Yes, of course, although our biggest partners are EU member states. Trade with the Middle East and Africa has also increased by 100-200% since the crisis. But what we lost in terms of trade from the EU is still greater in volume than this, however.

Do you focus specifically on countries in Europe with Muslim populations, like Bosnia and Herzegovina, Albania and to some extent Bulgaria?

We have a business strategy towards the Balkans, not only towards Muslim countries, as well as with Africa, Russia, Central Asia and the Middle East. We are always improving our research on how to enter these markets. South America is also important for us and we are currently developing a strategy for entering this market.

How does decision-making work? Does the Turkish business community take instructions from the government in order to achieve this penetration?

Like all over the world, politicians make decisions such as to increase mutual trade and then boundaries are eliminated, for instance on customs tariffs. This then becomes a target for the private sector. The private sector does request politicians to make these moves as well, so it becomes a cycle.

Some people say what the business community wants is even more important than what politicians wish to achieve, even in terms of European integration. What is your assessment: does Europe want Turkey as an EU member or not?

Of course what we think is more important than what Europe thinks. We want to enter the European Union, we want to become a member and be fully integrated. By the way, I am also the deputy chairman of Eurochambres. We want to reach the same standard as the EU with regards to legislation and standards: the rest is not important to us.

I got your message that Turkey wants to be an EU member, but a recent survey surprisingly reveals that only 38% of Turks say they want to join the Union…

In politics there are always ups and downs. These are temporary situations. We are already integrated in an economic sense and since 1996 we are in a customs union with the EU.

Does the business community want to foster better relations with Armenia, for example?

Our policy at the moment is to have 'zero problems' with all our neighbours. So we have already taken steps forwards to help solve the problems, as the Turkish government has done. The other side also has to take steps, however, and also get rid of their political fears.

Does the 'zero problem' policy include Cyprus?

Of course, this zero-problem policy also includes Cyprus and we would like to do business with the southern part of the island. We have taken some initiatives in order for this to happen and are trying to unite Greece, Turkey and both parts of Cyprus as a business community.

We are already friends, but we have to talk to each other about our problems.

Then why doesn't Turkey open its ports and airports to vessels and planes from Cyprus?

Both sides should do what they have to do as they are both responsible, not only Turkey. For example, a direct trade agreement has yet to come through in legislation, southern Cyprus doesn't agree to a free trade agreement, and still they ask us to open our ports; this is not possible at the moment. But each side has to take steps in the direction of the other.

What role is the business community playing in this?

The business community has supported the Annan 2004 plan [of creating a federation of two states joined by one federal government] and we have declared this to the media.

When meeting EU counterparts here in Brussels, what did you discuss?

We didn't have any problems. When we speak with them it's about increasing our trade volume. The Commission is always assisting us and we have a good relation with them. The European business community also supports our full membership of the EU.

You say you have no problems with Brussels. I'm surprised you didn't mention the visa issue.

The visa issue is a problem the government must solve, but we always state the problem in all the platforms that we can, as it is an injustice. But there is injustice also in free trade issues. In the customs union, they say that the transport of goods takes place under free trade, but quotas exist.

When Turkey negotiates those chapters, we can envisage long transition periods for transport, for example, which you mentioned. What kind of transition period would be acceptable for the Turkish business community?

We have no problems discussing the transition periods. But this is for the future, at the moment we are not yet discussing those chapters yet.

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