Turkish politician: EU approach towards Black Sea a ‘major disappointment’

Suat Kiniklioglu.jpg

The EU lacks a concerted policy towards the Black Sea region and is becoming increasingly fragile, inward-looking and even Islamophobic, Suat Kiniklioglu, deputy chairman for external affairs in Turkey's ruling Justice and Development (AK) Party, told EURACTIV Germany in an exclusive interview.

Mr Kiniklioglu is deputy chairman for external affairs in Turkey's ruling AK Party. He is also spokesperson of the Turkish parliament’s foreign affairs committee.

He was speaking to EURACTIV Germany’s Michael Kaczmarek.

Mr Kiniklioglu: Turkey and Russia are the big powers in the Black Sea area. What are Turkey's main political and economic interests in the region?

Turkey seeks a stable, predictable Black Sea region. Our neighbourhood policy foresees the deepening of our political dialogue, increasing our trade and encouraging direct people-to-people contacts in the region. We have seen significant steps in these directions in the last eight years.

The Black Sea region is a crossroads for energy supply into the EU. Several new pipeline projects (e.g. Nabucco) are competing with one another, yet the region does not seem to be a political or economic priority in the EU's external policy. Are other international players (China, the US, Arab countries, etc.) more ambitious in the region? What consequences might this have for the EU's ambition to become a global power?

The EU has failed to construct sound policy in the fields of energy and foreign policy. Unfortunately, the EU constitutes a major disappointment when it comes to having a concerted policy approach to the Black Sea region. Regional states are increasingly aware of this. We have an Ankara-based approach toward the Black Sea region and continue to push our neighbourhood policy in the region. Our neighbourhood policy seeks to establish more inter-dependencies in the region and attract more investment from the region to Turkey.

The US has less interest in the region and we see a resurgence of Russian influence in the region. If current trends continue, it is highly unlikely that the EU will become a global power, so this is an unnecessary question. Unless the question of Turkey's full membership is resolved and Turkey is a full member of the EU, the Union is not likely to project power that would make it legitimate to call itself a global power.

The countries of the region are fierce political and economic competitors. Additionally, global players Turkey and Russia have their own national agendas. Could the region ever speak to the EU or other international players with one voice?

Despite a multitude of efforts to the contrary, the region has not acquired a regional identity. The states in the region see themselves through other references. They are either Balkan, Caucasus or Eurasian states. Their Black Sea identity is a secondary form of identity and is only utilised when it fits their interests.

It is only natural that Turkey and Russia – who are both kept at arm's length by the EU – have their own agendas. Why should Turkey align its foreign policy objectives with a Union that does not itself have a common agenda in the Black Sea? How can you reconcile the interests of Poland and Latvia with those of the Germans and the Italians?

How can effective regional cooperation in the Black Sea region function if bilateral problems in the region have not been solved? Considering, for example, the tensions between Turkey and Armenia or between Armenia and Azerbaijan, between Turkey and Greece, between Russia and Georgia or on Transnistria, etc…

Regional cooperation is likely to remain limited given the aforementioned identity issue, as well as the conflicting interests at hand. Regional cooperation beyond limited action is a fallacy and is unlikely to succeed.

The Black Sea region consists of EU members, EU candidate Turkey, countries that participate in the EU's Eastern Partnership programme and perhaps want to join the EU later on, and Russia. How does the different level of EU ‘participation’ shape the region? And how does Turkey's ambition to join the EU influence its politics in the Black Sea region?

There is no doubt that the different levels create different allegiances and priorities for the countries concerned. Turkey's ambition to join the EU has no relevance in shaping Turkey's Black Sea policy. Turkey's Black Sea policy should be seen under the overarching umbrella of our neighbourhood policy. If Turkey became a full member of the EU, Ankara would align itself with a common European policy but that looks distant at the moment. Turkey's Black Sea policy is first and foremost concerned with addressing Turkey's national interests.

The AK Party is pushing for major constitutional reform in Turkey. Critics say the aim is to weaken certain institutions that are currently controlled by the opposition. Why do Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdo?an and your party insist on the reforms?

The constitutional reform package is aimed at making Turkey a more transparent and normal democracy. We would have wanted to have broader consensus in the parliament for the package. We have attempted to construct it.

Unfortunately, Turkey's opposition parties pride themselves on opposing anything and everything without considering the content and ramifications of the constitutional package.

In fact, the current package will serve the consolidation of Turkish democracy. That said, comprehensive constitutional change will take place after the next general election.

The members of the EU’s monetary union have to bail out Greece. Other eurozone members like Spain or Portugal are under pressure. How does this crisis of the EU and the euro zone influence public opinion on Turkey's EU ambitions?

Needless to say, these developments feed into the perception of a fragile EU that is increasingly becoming inward-looking, Islamophobic and in some cases outright racist. It feeds into the perception that Europe fails to see that the gravity of global attention is shifting east; that Europe is missing out on major historical trends that have come about as a result of globalisation.

Turkish public opinion still favours Turkey to join the EU, but it is no longer uncritical and has many questions to ask. We sincerely hope that our Mediterranean friends will quickly recover from their current situations, particularly Greece, which we genuinely consider as an important neighbour, friend and ally.

The Belgian parliament recently voted to ban the burqa. In other European countries, like France, Germany and Italy, politicians are discussing banning the burqa, niq?b or headscarf. How do the Turkish public and politicians view the European discussions? How do they affect public opinion on Turkey's EU ambitions?

One of the greatest challenges facing our democracies is to find a modicum between the need for a separation between the church/mosque and the state and the desire of citizens to live and practise their religions. Turkey also struggles to find an appropriate order that satisfies these two needs. We do not condone provisions that foresee curtailing the freedom of citizens who simply want to practice their religious beliefs.

That said, we are also cognisant of the different versions of secularism in a number of European countries. It is up to the decision-makers and the publics of these countries to decide what sort of order they feel are appropriate for their respective countries.

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