Over recent years, Turkey has been accused by some Western commentators of reorienting itself towards the Islamic world at the expense of its relationships with the EU and the USA. Turkey’s Ambassador to Spain, H.E Ömer Önhon, says this perception is far removed from the truth, and that his country has diversified its trading partners out of necessity but it still sees its future as firmly rooted within the European Union.
Why, in your opinion, has Turkey been able to increase trade towards the Middle East, a region that is so volatile and full of conflict?
Our trade with Asia was USD 15.7 billion in 2003, whereas in 2013 it came up to USD 82 billion, with Africa in 2003 it was USD 3.6 billion and in 2013 it came up to USD 20 billion and with the Middle East it was USD 9 billion in 2003 and USD 43 billion last year.
There are crises everywhere in the world, specifically in the Middle East where everything is falling apart. Even trade routes are blocked for security reasons, however, we have been able to find alternative routes. Even when there is war, people have to eat, purchase goods and spend money. Life continues and demand does not decrease; I believe crises create their own economies.
Do you believe there are specific challenges that Turkey needs to be aware of in terms of its future growth and towards the objective of becoming Europe´s fifth largest economy by 2023?
We face many challenges, as it is not easy to be able to sustain our development rate. Although the growth rate fell from eight percent to three percent, it is still very good given the circumstances. The first challenge we are faced with is that there is a lot of global competition and everybody is looking for the same things we are, i.e. investment and new markets, hence why it is so difficult to draw people to our country. We have to keep offering opportunities so when businesses and investors come to Turkey, they see there is stability and opportunity.
Turkey has given significant importance to certain sectors such as the pharmaceutical industry. The government has made a very extensive health reform and the pharmaceutical industry has finally come to life. Turkey has become one of the leading countries in this sector. For example, we now have 349 pharmaceutical companies operating in Turkey. In the last two years exports of these products have grown by forty percent. The government is providing several incentives in this field, in ways such as purchasing guarantees of seven years. We have also developed the health tourism sector, and now, according to the World Tourism Organization, we are the sixth ranking country in this field. In 2013 we had three hundred thousand medical travellers come to Turkey providing revenues of about USD 2.5 billion. In 2018 the target will be USD 9 billion. This is another indication of success because ten years ago we came up with this plan and we have achieved it.
Given that Turkey has been diversifying its trade with several other regions, to what extent is the revival of the EU accession process important to Turkey at this point?
I want to refer to the fact that even though we are not an energy producing country, Turkey today is an economic success story. Although we do not have natural resources and are an energy dependent country importing ninety percent of our energy needs, we have accomplished an economic boom, becoming a hub, and this puts us in a very advantageous position.
The European Union is still our number one trading partner but we have also opened up to the Middle East among other regions such as Africa, South East Asia and Latin America. Unfortunately this action has been misinterpreted as if Turkey would be trying to get away from the EU. This is not the case. Our relations with the EU have nothing to do with our exploration of other markets and the EU membership is still a strategic objective for us. I believe that it is only natural for any country to look for market diversification and new opportunities. Of course I regret that such actions are being interpreted as Turkey getting away from the EU.
Do you believe that Turkey is being treated fairly in regards to EU accession?
Our relations with the EU began in 1963 and we are the only country that is part of the customs union. We have been accepted as a candidate country with accession negotiations starting in 2005. At this time we are still at the same stage. Some years ago, the EU could undermine Turkish democracy but today we have a very healthy and functioning democracy. Nobody can question this.
Our economy is doing great. If you put Turkey within the statistics of the EU, we would be in the top six economies. Turkey is however not being judged on objective criteria. Many countries in the EU support Turkey´s accession, others are on the fence but do not object to it. Unfortunately, France, Germany, and Cyprus block the accession, for their own political reasons, however, Turkey´s membership depends on the will of these countries. This has caused a very big frustration in Turkey, which has nothing to do with going back to Islam or turning away from the EU. It is the EU and the press who keep repeating that Turkey is turning away from the West. In other words, media perception is not always accurate. The way we see it is that the EU keeps pushing us away and closing the door on us, not that Turkey would be moving away from the EU.
Given that sixty-five percent of Turkey´s population is under thirty-five and that the EU´s aging population is causing our government headaches, from an economic point of view Turkey´s accession could even be an advantage for the EU?
Exactly, Turkey is not going to be a burden for the EU, the opposite, it should bring relief. I would not have said this about Turkish contribution to EU fifteen or twenty years ago but now we recovered and the EU is in bad shape, so we could bring fresh talent.
In 2015 Turkey will be president of the G20 and host the G20 Summit in Antalya in November 2015. What do you believe is the significance for Turkey to be able to host such a major event and to what extent will Turkey be able to take the lead on issues like trade, investment, poverty, equality and financial stability?
The G20 is obviously very important however we have to keep our expectations at realistic levels. We are trying to do everything possible to bring out certain issues of concern. For example the G20 meets every year but after the summit there is no follow-up on the leaders’ agreements. Focus is always on the large players in the world economy but we must address smaller countries with fewer tools. I think these are the priorities of our chairmanship.
What is your vision on Turkish-Spanish relations and to what extent do you believe Spain can help Turkey to accelerate the accession to the EU and to grow in economic terms?
Every country in Europe has political parties and people who support Turkey’s accession and those who do not. In Spain there is a consensus amongst all political parties. They are in all favour. Our political relations are very good and free of significant challenges. There is an impressive development in the economic field with our trade now at USD 8.5 billion. There are many Spanish companies operating in Turkish Institutions and in different sectors such as infrastructure, communication, transportation and more.
As the highest representative of Turkey in Spain, how do you see your role in strengthening the relations between Spain and Turkey?
I have a very good team in Spain and we will continue to contribute as much as we can commercially, culturally, politically and so forth. We are in contact with all segments of society and to inform Turkish positions in the correct way, helping businesses flourish.
What fields do you believe could be more interesting for both countries to focus on in the future and do you have any specific objective for your time as Ambassador?
Our objective in general terms is to try and contribute to bilateral relations. For example, Turkey is a major textile importer to Spain and there is still a lot we can do in this field. Turkish companies are opening up in Spain and Spanish companies are operating in Turkey. We are not limited to a few fields as there are a lot of opportunities everywhere. Furthermore, we can also cooperate with Spanish companies in other countries. There are areas where Turkey has an advantage, such as Asia, Middle East and Africa, and other where Spain does such as Latin America.
Do you believe that Turkey has been portrayed correctly in international media?
I believe not. No country in the world can claim that whatever they do is one hundred percent right, and I believe there are things in which Turkey can be criticized like any other country. Criticizing is not a crime; criticism is one of the basic tools of a democratic society. Unfortunately, in the press we sometimes see that a position is taken against a given country, and people do not normally get a more balanced version. I have read so many articles recently, specifically about Syria, and it is unbelievable how far from the truth some articles are. I believe it is very important to give the whole story and to have the views of all sides before making your own judgment.