Of all Turkey’s strained relations in recent years – its disputes with the United States, conflict in the Eastern Mediterranean and military confrontations in Syria and Libya – the most significant and impactful has probably been its link with the European Union. Relations between Turkey and Europe will be scrutinised and discussed at the next EU summit on 10 December. In anticipation that Turkey will be a divisive issue on the agenda, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan last week called on the EU to respect its promises of cooperation with Turkey. “We don’t see ourselves elsewhere but in Europe,” he stressed.
Building a future with Europe has been a key objective of Turkey for the five decades that it has sought membership of the bloc. This has continued under Erdogan’s premiership and presidency despite the numerous obstacles that have threatened the process.
A key figure in this, as well as a top advisor of the then Prime Minister Erdogan, has been Turkish diplomat and politician Egemen Bagis. As Turkey’s chief negotiator with the EU and Minister of EU Affairs until 2013, Bagis played a pivotal role in his country’s accession talks and was the main point of contact between Ankara and Brussels.
Following this he taught at Istanbul’s Aydin University until he was appointed by Erdogan as Turkey’s Ambassador to the Czech Republic in September last year. His diplomatic career has thus continued in a key EU member state.
Speaking to me at the Turkish Embassy in Prague last week, Bagis called the EU “the grandest peace project in the history of mankind.” I asked him why.
“When you look at the history of EU member countries you see a lot of wars, bloodshed, animosity, hatred and tears,” he explained. “The most amazing thing about the EU is that no member of the EU has fired even a single bullet towards another EU member in the history of the organisation.”
This, though, has not stopped the bloc’s members from firing on non-EU countries and vice versa. For Bagis, this means that, “We have to turn this peace project… into a global peace project.”
As part of that process, he told me that Turkey’s role must be recognised by the EU in its unique position as the link between continental Europe and Asia. “Turkey is the most eastern part of the west and the most western part of the east. We are the most European part of Asia and we are the most Asian part of Europe. Turkey joining the EU is greater than Turkey, is greater than the EU, it is also very essential for world stability and world peace.”
The ambassador believes that the EU and Turkey need each other, not least because 70 per cent of the energy resources Europe needs today are either to the south, north or east of Turkey. “The EU to the west of Turkey needs to have access to its sources.” And the road goes through Turkey. Energy is an issue that European nations have long grappled with in order to decrease their dependency on Russia.Turkey looks to be a hub for energy resources flowing to the West, and its recent discovery of over 450 billion cubic metres of gas reserves in the Black Sea will help. It also aims to utilise the strategic Trans-Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline (TANAP), which last month announced that it was ready to begin operations and deliver gas directly from Azerbaijan to Europe for the first time.
With this increased involvement in the regional energy market and the demand for non-Russian gas, as well as the assistance in security and migration control that his country can provide, Bagis asserted that cooperation between the EU and Turkey is not a luxury. “It’s a necessity.”
Despite the EU’s need for an enhanced partnership with Turkey, the main obstacle remains the country’s identity. “Is Turkey’s Muslim identity an obstacle to its EU membership?” asked Bagis. “No doubt. Not only Turkey, there’s even fear about Bosnia which is even smaller… the one segment of former Yugoslavia which is furthest away from EU membership is Bosnia and it’s because of the Muslim identity within Bosnia. And not all [Bosnian citizens] are Muslims! But they still suffer.”
He put this down to ignorance, which he said creates an unnecessary fear of Turkey and Muslims amongst Europeans. “When I was the EU minister, I realised that those Europeans who had been to Turkey were much more positive about EU membership, and those who were very sceptical and were very much against our membership were those who had never been to Turkey. This ignorance is a big problem that we all have to fight.”
Although Bagis no longer works in the Turkish accession process, his appointment as Ambassador in Prague means that he has not yet finished with Europe. He is active in representing Turks within the Czech Republic and his interest in Turkey’s relations across the continent is undiminished.
As befits someone in his profession, Bagis has an air of courtesy and openness, which is utilised to the full in his role in the small EU nation where there are fewer Turks than in neighbouring countries. “That gives me an advantage,” he noted. “I’m probably one of the very few Turkish ambassadors in Europe who can claim that my doors are open to all my citizens at all times.”
He referred me to the embassy’s Instagram page that he created upon his appointment. A quick glance shows that he has hosted many during his stay in Prague. “There has not been a single Turkish citizen who could not get an appointment to see me,” he said. “I feel like the community here is a big family and I am responsible for that family.”
His connection with the Czech Republic goes back a long way. While serving as Turkey’s chief negotiator to the EU he dealt mainly with the Czech EU Commissioner for Enlargement, Stefan Fule.
Erdogan has tasked him with increasing trade significantly between Prague and Ankara, from 3.5 billion dollars’ worth to $5 billion. “That was a challenge set by then-Prime Minister Erdogan when he visited Prague in February 2013. I accompanied him during that trip as his minister for Europe… And when he gave me the assignment to become ambassador, he told me, ‘It’s been six years and it’s still $3.5 billion. I’m asking you to go there and keep my word.’”
Time, it seemed, was not on his side; the coronavirus pandemic has ruined progress. “I haven’t been able to complete it in the first year but I’m still determined to do it,” insisted Bagis. He also pointed out that more Czech Skoda cars are being sold to Turkey, which provides parts for them.
Not surprisingly, the ambassador also expressed his thoughts about the US presidential election; he studied in New York in his younger days and retains an affinity with the country. He dismissed President-elect Joe Biden’s talk of supporting the Turkish opposition against Erdogan and the ruling A K Party, which was revealed in recordings made last year. This was, he believes, simply part of his election campaign.
“All presidential candidates have attacked Turkey during election campaigns, and they have changed their tone once taking the oath and being briefed by their government agencies,” he said. “And that’s accurate for all, there are no exceptions. Because of the democratic system in the US, there are more anti-Turkey votes.” He puts this down to the influential Armenian lobby, the Gulenists, and an emerging Kurdish lobby.
Once Biden takes office, however, Bagis predicts that the new President will realise “the importance of Turkey” and “the vulnerability” of the relationship. “To quote an old Turkish saying, the head that wears the crown gets wiser.” He certainly hopes so.