Day 2 Riga Conference – Turkey as a bridge between Europe and Asia

We’re at the first session on Saturday for the Riga Conference. On our panel is Artis Pabrikas (Deputy Prime Minister for EU Presidency, Defense minsietsr, Latvia), Yasar Yakis (Foreign Minister Turkey), Christian Schmidt (State Secretary to the Federal Minister of Defense, Germany), Grigol Vashadze (Foreign Minister Georgia).

The Chair asks Yasar Yakis to respond to the topic – can Turkey bridge a gap between Asia and Europe. Yakis says the short answer is no: Turkey cannot bridge between Asia as a continent, Longer answer: the fact that so many citizens in the region of Turkey were members of the Ottoman empire just 90 years ago, so there is an historical relstionship which allows Turkey to communicate with one another, but there are also some bad memories of the Ottoman Empire. Turkey has constraints in brigding the gap between Europe and Turkey. It could be better with Europe and with the transatlantic cooperation. The same level of cooperation between the US and Europe with the region is possible without Turkey, but it may be more effective if the relationship is bipartisan.

Pabrikas counters this saying that Turkey has an expertise to broker relationships with Asia. Pabrikas identifies two issues with European engagement with Turkey. tthe first cultural difference considered is based on religion, but he argues that the EU is secular. The second issue is EU internal reform; if the way was opened up for the accession of Turkey to the EU, then Turkey could also help with these reforms necessary for the EU to respond to the economic crisis and to threats to European security.

Minister Vashadze is given the floor and speaks on behalf of Georgia.  He is asked about the relationship between Turkey and Georgia.  He says he is unwilling to say outright that Turkey can act as a bridge but he does believe that Turkey is playing a crucial role in brokering economic relationships.  Citizens of Turkey and Georgia have an open visa protocol and there is a clear opportunity to expand those kinds of relations in the region.  (Problems with Vashadze’s use of his microphone limit further commentary.)

Schmidt addresses the question, noting that the major issue is that we have not yet managed to converge the NATO commitment to the European wide security policy. The challenges behind political integration are substantially greater than the challenges of military integration.  He says he feels full integration of Turkey would be wrong.  Turkey should not be considered a bridge; instead there should be a movement towards s joint security and foreign policy strategy.  Schmidt notes the economic relationship between Turkey and the EU will set up the basis for partial or full membership of Turkey to the EU – but there may well be a need for the EU to set some conditions of membership that will refer to relationships Turkey maintains with neighbouring regions as well as Turkey’s reactions to action in areas such as Israel.

Yakis notes that Egypt and Turkey are at opposite extremes.  Turkey can make no policy decision without reference to political process, where in Egypt no policy decision can be made without reference to Sharia law.  And yet, Turkey shares a religious belief system with Egypt, thus Turkey can offer credibility of policy making as a broker between Europe and Egypt. Pabrikas notes that a similar situation occurs in Eastern block countries in relationship with Russia and surrounding regions.  Schmidt responds, noting that EU is insistent that minority interests need to be accommodated in regional policies.

A question from the floor focuses on a commonwealth of Turkey and the EU.  What are the main problems?  A second question focuses on Turkey’s relationship with the Kurdish part of Iraq.  A third question focuses on Iran and how the relationship is progressing between Brazil, Turkey and Iran.

Yakis says there is not a single problem. Many Europeans haven’t forgotten the besieging of Vienna 350 years ago, so even if it’s possible to forget the second world war, it may not be possible to get over such long memories.  There is also a distinct cultural difference between Turkey and European differences.  And finally there are demographic and economic differences which problematise communication.

Yakis also notes that the relationship between Kurdish Iraq and Turkey is very good and now that autonomy is almost there, those good relations will continue.  He also notes that Turkey acted to moderate Iran’s position in cooperation with the US. There are only limited means to stop Iran’s nuclear ambitions, but Turkey wants to ensure the security of its own region, so together with Brazil, any action taken in Iran has been in that interest.  Schmidt notes again that joint responsibility for security of the Turkish region is perhaps the best context for EU participation.

I’m going to close the blog from this session now – some questions remain on the mechanisms for secularism of states, as well as questions relating to the possibility of a relationship between Europe and Asia without Turkey.  General answers given are focused on policy development being the mechanism of these outcomes.  We’ll return this afternoon to discuss Russian modernization.

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