Please note this interview took place before the recent demonstrations in Taksim Square
Turkey is going through an exciting period at the moment. At a time of global economic recession, Turkey has been the fastest growing economy in Europe, for two out of the last three years, and is even expected to post a respectable gross domestic product (GDP) growth figure of 4% for 2013. What impact has this impressive economic growth had on relations between the UK and Turkey?
Turkey’s economic growth has had a very positive impact, because, clearly, the UK is looking for economic growth and a rise in exports. In Turkey, we have Europe’s emerging economy right on our doorstep. In particular, Turkey provides opportunities for SMEs that are not as experienced as they might be in the wider international market to test the water by coming to Turkey.
Turkey also has played and continues to play a vital role as a stabilising force in the region, given the recent civil uprising known as the Arab Spring, by being a peacekeeper and role model to its Muslim neighbours. How important is this newfound peacekeeping role to Turkey’s continued economic growth and its international image?
I do not think the Turks would claim to be peacekeepers in the region. I think they claim to be an example of how a secular democracy with a Muslim majority population can provide economic prosperity and social development as well as political rights to its people. The Turks are very careful to avoid the use of the term ‘model’, because every model is clearly going to be different in the Middle East. But I think the key point is the combination of political stability, democratic rights and economic prosperity. When other people in the region look at that model, they can draw inspiration from it.
In that Turkish model, I think one important element that one should not overlook is that it is precisely Turkey’s Western and Eastern orientation that has attraction. People in the region see that Turkey’s success in attracting foreign direct investment (FDI) is linked to reforms that are part of Turkey’s EU accession preparations. Even when Europe is going through a very difficult time economically, 75% of FDI into Turkey comes from EU countries. And the EU is still Turkey’s largest single export market. So I think that people in the region who are looking at Turkey, see a country that is reaching out in different geographical directions.
A couple of years ago, some people were saying that Turkey was going to have to make a choice between East or West. I think that now, more people would accept the view that the British government holds very strongly – that part of Turkey’s great value is that it has a very special geographical position, and can expand its links in both directions. Turkey has a solid market in Europe. But it is also a very energetic policy pursuing new business to the east and also in Africa and in Asia. So it is a very exciting time for Turkey, and other people in the region can feel that excitement.
Bilateral relations between Turkey and the UK have never been better. What do you think can be done to increase bilateral trade even further?
You are absolutely right – the relationship is very strong. It has been strong for some years, and an element in this has been that British governments have consistently supported Turkey’s EU membership bid. But the relationship has got stronger because it has got wider and deeper. We have a relentless stream of visitors in both directions, having very substantive conversations; and British business has really woken up to the opportunities here, as well as Turkish business opening up opportunities in Britain.
So the pace of contact has grown. We certainly want to encourage more SMEs to get into partnerships with Turkish companies, not just to work in the Turkish and UK markets, but also to move into third markets, where we see that we have very complementary strengths, expertise and experience.
In which sectors do you think economic or investment opportunities lie for UK investors?
We are already very strong in the retail trade, and you will see a lot of major British names here. Or, you will not see the names, but they are there with a Turkish partner, and they have invested heavily. We are also looking at sectors like infrastructure, where of course Turkey has got very ambitious plans; defence; ICT; and financial services, where clearly the City of London can play a very positive role in the development of Istanbul as a financial centre, and we have had very strong contacts on that front. We have got a lot to offer in terms of educational services; and we are looking at renewables and environment services as Turkey seeks to reduce its dependence on foreign energy, which is really the weakest link in the Turkish economic package, because they have really got to develop their own energy capacity.
Where do you see the EU accession process ending up? How is the economic climate in Europe affecting the process?
I think the growing economic strength of Turkey reinforces the economic benefits to the EU of having Turkey inside. We would also say that the important thing is to look at the strategic ambition. The fact is that Turkey is a country with European territory. When you are sitting in Istanbul on the western side of the Bosphorus, you are sitting in Europe.
If Turkey meets the technical requirements for EU membership, our view is that Turkey ought to be able to join. That will be good for Turkey and the EU, although of course a lot of work still needs to be done. But the accession process does not commit anyone to the final decision – it opens the doors to reach a point at which you can take a decision.
The entire EU is formally committed to allowing the accession process to develop, and we hope that 2013 will be a good year for that process. We already have the French government lifting its block on a chapter of the negotiations, and we hope that we progress on the Cyprus issue, which is also a factor affecting the accession process.
We also hope that the Turkish internal reform process will continue, because our view is that Turkey should make it harder for anyone who has doubts about Turkish membership to argue that view with any conviction; and the best way for Turkey to do this is via internal reforms that bring Turkish legal and political structures into line with EU norms.
How closely do you work with the Turkish government to increase bilateral relations between the two countries?
That is what we are here for; we do it all the time. We have an operation that covers a huge range of issues, whether it is politics, business, education, organised crime, migration, defence, or consular affairs. There is a huge agenda going on, which is getting deeper all the time, and that is what we work on every day. On the EU angle, it is a constant dialogue, because we are very strong supporters of Turkish membership. We are continually talking to the Turkish government about how we can help move the process forward.
When your term ends here as Ambassador, ideally what would you like to have achieved on a personal level?
Getting our two Prime Ministers together in the way we have has set the tone for the entire structures of both governments to tackle relationships. We have a series of agreements on issues that represent real progress in how we can do business together. The improvement of relations was also symbolised by the President’s state visit to the UK in November 2011, which had a very heavy business focus, and which reflected the strength of the political relationship as well.
Our support for Turkey’s EU accession has also been a real feature of the last four years, and much appreciated by the Turkish ministers. So has our support on combating terrorism, of which we have had our own experience. We have been very firm on tackling PKK fundraising in the UK.
What final message would you like to send about bilateral relations between the UK and Turkey to our millions of readers in the printed version in the UK, as well as our millions of readers on our online platform worldfolio?
I would say that this is now a relationship with strong foundations. It has had its difficulties in the past, most notably when we were on opposite sides in the First World War. But it has now come out of that period of history, to become really strong and provide a good base for business to flourish and for cooperation on a range of international issues. It is worth the work maintaining it. The maintenance effort yields results, and we are committed to keeping the relationship working and developing, with Turkey continuing the reform and accession processes that will lead the country towards membership of the European Union.