Tacan Ildem, Turkish ambassador in the Netherlands (photos & report)

The Hague
Tacan Ildem
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Politiek Café, Den Haag. 1 maart 2004

Tacan Ildem

Thank you very much for inviting me to speak before such a knowledgeable audience. Two challenges though. One, is to speak out loud like you (Pam Evenhuis) did. The other is to have the appeal for this distinguished audience to listen to me after such a beautiful jazz music. So, I will have to face these two challenges.
The topic of the discussion for tonight is “Turkey-EU relations”, which is in fact in the centre of every debate in The Netherlands nowadays since it will be one of the most important files the Dutch EU Presidency will have to tackle with. In December when the EU Summit Meeting takes place, a decision will be made whether to initiate accession negotiations with Turkey or not. It will be a crucial cornerstone in the new phase of Turkey’s relationship with the European Union.
Turkey’s orientation has always been towards the West. If I go back in history, even in the declining periods of the Ottoman Empire we considered Europe to be a source of inspiration for our modernisation efforts. Many Ottoman Sultans during that time took the European way of life as a point of reference in overhauling different aspects of the administrative system. It became more institutional with the reforms of great leader Ataturk. Since the foundation of the Turkish Republic we have been considering the westernisation process to be very much in line with our ambitions to belong to the contemporary civilisation. In 1949, with this spirit and belief, we became a founding member of the Council of Europe. In 1952 Turkey joined NATO. In 1963 Turkey signed an association agreement which we call the “Ankara Agreement” with the organisation then called EEC. For forty years we have been aspiring to join the EU and by fulfilling the requirements of such an objective, to become an indivisible part of the European family. In 1999, at the Helsinki Summit Meeting, Turkey was accorded with the candidate status. This status provides us with the opportunity to start accession negotiations when Turkey fully fulfils the requirements of Copenhagen political criteria. In 2002 at the Copenhagen Summit Meeting it was announced that if Turkey would fulfil the Copenhagen political criteria fully, then in December 2004 a decision would be made whether to initiate accession negotiations or not. Since the Helsinki Summit Meeting in 1999 we have made remarkable changes in our legislative system. We have enacted 34 amendments in our constitution to meet the Copenhagen political criteria. Laws were accepted at the Parliament and bi-laws were issued by the Government to implement those constitutional amendments and the legislative changes that we had incorporated in our system. We know that to enact even the most idealistic laws in a country is something that may be considered relatively easier. More important is to implement them and to reflect those changes in the daily lives of individuals. This is in fact what we are doing now. We have established a Screening Committee chaired by the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs to see to it that any legislative change is demonstrated in practice and we are confident that the Commission’s progress report will determine that everything is in order. The recent reforms represent a historical transformation in my country.
I would like to touch upon a couple of important issues relevant to the discussions in The Netherlands. First of all, I understand that when the Dutch public makes a judgement regarding Turkish aspirations to accede in the EU, individuals evaluate things against the backdrop of EU enlargement in general. In such evaluations, people are under the influence of the economic crisis that the Netherlands is undergoing nowadays. Of course such a relative crisis leads any individual Dutch citizen to put the question to himself or herself whether a country like Turkey, so large population-wise and size-wise, can fit in Europe without bringing any additional economic burden to the budget of the EU. You are sensitive to this question since The Netherlands is the net contributor to the EU budget and we know the criticisms levelled against some of the member countries within the context of the Stability Pact. One can agree on the principled attitude that you have been adopting in resisting to any increase in the budget and possible consequences to be reflected in your contributions. Every Dutch tax payer has the legitimate question to put whether there will be an extra money coming out of his pocket to finance the enlargement process, particularly the one of Turkey.
Second, you are also considering this matter in the light of the heated debate, the dynamics of which had been created recently by the political movement led especially by late Pim Fortuyn, as to the contributions of foreign minorities to the Dutch society. We can hear arguments to question even the very existence of such groups. The Turkish community is a large one and perhaps there are tendencies to draw certain conclusions as to the relevance of Turkey within Europe by the image of Turks and Turkey projected out of the first wave of Turkish immigrants who have had certain difficulties in integrating in the Dutch social life due to the circumstances that they had been brought here and their intellectual and economic backgrounds.
The third consideration I want to touch upon is the scepticism towards Islam in general and to countries with predominantly Muslim populations in the aftermath of September 11. Because what happened in New York, which shocked and devastated us all, brought about a change of perception in the minds of the Europeans. They started to question whether Islam is in fact a religion that can live together with Christianity. There exist certain quarters who can even further their arguments as to whether a particular faith, to be precise, Islam, is the root cause of terrorist attacks.
If I may respond very briefly to these three questions in the remaining part of my introductory remarks I think I may be able to lay the necessary ground for you to pose questions.
First, I think that a moment of truth has come for the European Union to decide whether it will remain introvert with its internal problems or will rather assume the role of a global player. To become a global player requires the EU to expand its understanding and to reach geographies beyond its borders. You may see that there are certain challenges involved in such a bold step to be made, nevertheless you need to acknowledge, at the same time, that there will be great opportunities to be explored after having such a change of course in the history of Europe. Turkey can serve in that sense to add to the strategic depth that the EU has to acquire in order to play such a role. With the historical ties, cultural affinities she has been enjoying with the countries in the extended geographies beyond her borders, Turkey’s contributions cannot be ignored.
Second, I believe that when Turkey is denied to start accession negotiations, the people with Islamic faith will find themselves alienated. They will consider the EU to be a Christian club and I don’t think that it will be a fair understanding to create since the founding fathers of the EU had never thought of the Union to be based on Christian values only. It is the common values which help to define the European identity. In the history of Europe you will find certain incidents which were not shared by all nations belonging to the EU. After witnessing the very delicate and difficult referenda processes which the EU faced in so far as the Maastricht Treaty, the Amsterdam Treaty and the Nice Treaty are concerned, we may come to the conclusion that there is no single European identity that one can easily define. And especially in the aftermath of September 11, we need to do everything possible to promote a healthy dialogue between different cultures and accept diversity to be a source of strength. Let us not forget that there is now a large group of more than 10 million Muslim people living in the EU who are in search of an identity one may call “Euro-Islam”. It is always good to have a secular country like Turkey where separation of state affairs and religion is the fundamental principle of its constitutional system. It will be an asset for the EU to have in its ranks a country like Turkey who can be a role model for those people who aspire moderation rather than fanaticism.
And finally, for the discussions regarding any possible burden on the EU budget, I think one should not fail to recognize the fact that Turkey will only be initiating accession negotiations. But public opinions have the general tendency to think in terms of all claimed adverse impacts of a possible Turkish accession as if the accession will be in force as of December 2004. There will be another long process to continue and who knows how many years it may take to complete negotiations to be ready for accession. Nevertheless Turkey certainly will prepare herself to be fully compatible with the economic requirements of the EU. On the other hand, let us not forget that we have a Customs Union agreement since the beginning of 1996 and it is a case in point that the Turkish economy has shown how competitive it is in dealing with the strong economies of its EU partners without actually receiving any financial assistance from the Union.
I will stop here, so that you may put questions that I will try to respond.
Thank you.