Turkey emerging as leader in North Africa, Arab world, says EP member
A former Belgian prime minister and a member of the European Parliament has said Turkey is emerging as a leader of the North African and Arab world while praising the country’s attitude toward the public demand for democracy and reforms in those regions.
Guy Verhofstadt, who served as the Belgian prime minister from 1999 to 2008 and is currently a member of the European Parliament and leader of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE), spoke to Sunday’s Zaman in an exclusive interview. ALDE is the third-largest political group in the 736-member European Parliament.
“I find the position of Turkey very courageous [toward public revolutions in the Arab world and North Africa] and very important for the rest of the world. And I don’t think that Turkey is isolated. Actually, the opposite is true — because Turkey is becoming the political leader, I should say, of a whole range of countries from reformed Morocco, democratic Tunisia, Libya without Gaddafi and Egypt that still has to find its way in the next month, in the next year and a number of other countries.
I see Turkey emerging as a leader for a whole new region in North Africa and the Arab world,” Verhofstadt said.
Since the beginning of the public revolts in the Arab world and North Africa early this year, which has so far resulted in the toppling of some long-time dictators, Turkey has been calling on these countries to heed the demands of their people to expand democracy and freedoms while calling on them to avoid the use of violence against anti-government protesters.
Verhofstadt also praised Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdo?an’s messages on secularism during a tour of Arab Spring nations last month, saying that he found Erdo?an’s remarks honest.
During a televised interview in Egypt, Erdo?an urged Egyptians to not be afraid of secularism and that they should embrace it. “A devout Muslim can successfully govern a secular state,” he said.
“I think he is very honest about what he said in Egypt. Mr. Erdo?an is personally a Muslim, that’s very clear; he has repeated that several times already. But on the other hand, when it comes to the political aspect of the issue and the way a state is organized, the state has to be secular. Otherwise you end up mixing up religion and politics and that’s always a bad thing. So I think it is one of the big achievements of Turkey that it has created a society that is democratic, albeit with some problems from time to time, but it is basically democratic and secular and thus keeps religion and politics separate and gives freedom of religion to everybody. The values that are emerging now in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya are not Western values; they are values for the whole world. They are universal values, indeed,” he said.
Verhofstadt was in Turkey earlier this month with an EU delegation. They visited the party groups in Parliament. Sharing his impressions from the Turkey visit, he said he saw a Turkey that is in good shape economically, with growth figures around 9 to 10 percent.
He said the reason for his visit was the relationship between Turkey and the European Union, which is not in a good state at the moment. Verhofstadt acknowledged that Turkey’s negotiations with the EU are blocked at the moment while voicing his belief that the year 2012 could be a crucial year for unblocking the negotiations.
EU countries unanimously agreed to open official accession talks with Turkey in 2005 before German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy came to power. Sarkozy claims Turkey does not belong in Europe, while Merkel promotes a “privileged partnership” that falls short of membership, a formula Ankara categorically rejects. In Berlin in May 2009, Merkel and Sarkozy made a joint statement declaring that they shared a common position regarding Turkey’s accession to the EU in that it should be offered a privileged partnership, not full EU membership.
Although having started accession negotiations with the EU in 2005, Turkey has only been able to open talks on 13 out of 35 chapters thus far, and talks have been provisionally completed on only one chapter.
Verhofstadt said he is in favor of full accession for Turkey into the European Union, and he does not believe in other alternatives such as privileged partnership.
“Because, in fact, Turkish people also don’t want this [privileged partnership]. They want to be part of the European Union. And I think because of the economic strength of Turkey and at the same time the political weight of Turkey in the region, there are more reasons today than there were two or three years ago to support the full accession of Turkey,” he said.
When asked whether progress in Turkey’s accession talks is possible without a change of attitude by Germany and France regarding Turkey’s membership, he said he finds the year 2012 crucial as change is possible in the political leadership in Europe and in a number of other countries.
“That’s one of the opportunities. The second opportunity is that I think everybody accepts that we create a new, positive political agenda between Turkey and the European Union based, for example, on the facilitation and liberalization of visas. This is a very important thing,” he added.
The EU offers a limited explanation as to why Turkey is the only EU candidate country that is not exempt from visa requirements, while the usual spectacle of long lines and waiting times for Schengen visas in front of EU member country embassies significantly add to the distaste felt by society.
Verhofstadt also dwelled on the claims of some Turks who say Turkey no longer needs the EU because it has a very strong economy. He said this kind of thinking is wrong because a huge part of the gross national product of Turkey is created by exports to the EU.
“Look to the European Union and certainly the eurozone as an internal market of 400-500 million people, who are consumers at the same time. I think Turkey has an enormous interest in investing in that internal market and having full access to that. And in the end, that is the aim of full membership in the EU, naturally, that Turkey becomes a part of that internal market. So, I think it would be a mistake to follow those who say ‘the center of gravity is shifting to the north of Africa.’ I think Turkey has a role to play as the bridge between the European Union on the one side and the democratic Arab world and a democratic North Africa on the other,” he said.